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Book Review: “Writers & Lovers” paints a poignant portrait of a young writer

Novels about writers are headache-inducing as a writer. But Lily King’s highly acclaimed fifth novel “Writers & Lovers” is anything but the pretentious, self-inserts other writer-focused novels evoke.

Set in 1997 Boston, “Writers & Lovers” follows 31-year-old Casey Peabody, a writer struggling to finish her first novel. Plagued by predatory student loan sharks and the unexpected death of her beloved mother, Casey is deep in the trenches of her quarter-life crisis.

To break Casey out of her writer’s (and life) block, her friend Muriel brings her to a book signing wherein she meets her two love interests: the famous author Oscar who recently lost his wife to cancer, and one of Oscar’s students, a high school teacher with a rusted car and a heart of gold. From there, we’re left wondering who Casey will end up with and whether or not she’ll finish her life’s work to the backdrop of beginning a new phase in life and healing oneself.

King immaculately captures the essence of writers everywhere and how hard it is to believe in yourself and work. Arguably, this element is the core of “Writers & Lovers”–holding onto your dreams, the sacrifices involved push Casey through her writer’s and life’s block. For writers out there–or any creative–this message is a reassuring hug that determination, passion, and resilience will win the battle with our demons of self-doubt.

“Writers & Lovers” wouldn’t be a contemporary novel without calling out men. Among the men on the metaphorical chopping block are Casey’s love interests Oscar and Silas, her disappointing father, Luke, the ex-boyfriend, and the callous doctors she visits. King flawlessly describes the ambitious differences between men and women, “Nearly every guy I’ve dated believed they should already be famous, believed that greatness was their destiny…I’ve met ambitious women, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.” The jabs make the novel all the more worth it and utterly relatable–we’ve all met men who fit into the tropes King paints with.

This novel isn’t decked out with frills and ruffles–it’s compelling without all the bells and whistles all on its own. There’s no need for paragraphs worth of emotional drivel when King writes with such clarity and conviction. Few novels can tug the heartstrings without long-winded prose and metaphors, and “Writers & Lovers” is one of those. In the first chapter, a downtrodden Casey encounters a flock of geese she seeks out, “They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the vast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere specter, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for.”

Among the tender convictions and details, King’s dry wit elevates “Writers & Lovers” from being a cynical writer’s journey to being a meaningful, coming-of-age for the hopeful 20- or 30-something-year-old. It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or not; anyone can find themselves in the pages of “Writers & Lovers” and understand Casey’s early-life crisis and all of the revelations that come with it.

“Writers & Lovers” is one of the few books I would recommend to any 20- or 30-something-year-old struggling with their dreams, grief, and finding one’s way. Seldom are there novels with as much heart, passion, and wisdom without hiding it behind writing frills. You’ll be thinking about this novel long after you’ve read it and wondering where it’s been all your life.

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