Writers & Lovers Looks at Grief and Desire
I’m a fan of Lily King’s work and was captivated by Euphoria, her tale of a love triangle between three anthropologists studying tribal life in 1930s New Guinea. Was it the exotic local or the deep dive into a world so different from my own that held my attention? Those things didn’t hurt, but when I picked up her latest book Writers and Lovers it was clear that it was King’s skill at putting the reader into the skin of her characters that had held me in thrall.
Writer’s and Lovers is set in1997 and narrated by Casey Peabody, a 31-year-old writer grieving the death of her mother as she struggles to write, make a living and rebound from a bad romance with a poet. Despite her challenges, Casey engages with the world. She stepping forward boldly into jobs and relationships in spite of her fear and past heartbreak.
Writers will enjoy the book for its insights in the pecking order of writers, the veracious depiction of the challenges of doing work that may never been seen or rewarded, and the doubled-edged burden writers balance of the scorn of people who don’t believe in their talent and their assumption that they too could write a book if they just had enough spare time.
As Casey’s obnoxious landlord observes: “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say,” Her unspoken mental retort is: I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse. In a later scene Casey’s gynecologist interrogates her about her publication history in the middle of a pelvic exam.
Casey struggles to get traction in her writing, worn down by her day job as a waitress and the weight of her grief for her mother, who died unexpectedly. Casey describes writing:
The hardest thing about writing is getting in every day, breaking through the membrane. The second hardest thing is getting out. Sometimes I sink down too deep and come up too fast. Afterward I feel wide open and skinless.
At its heart, Writer and Lovers is about grief. King’s depiction of the impact of grief on the body and mind is as pointed as the edge of a knife. King’s describes Casey’s body as humming as if it was filled with bees. This passage compares grief to a three-paneled mirror:
I look into my eyes, but they aren’t really mine, not the eyes I used to have. They’re the eyes of someone very tired and very sad, and once I see them I feel even sadder and then I see that sadness, that compassion for the sadness in my eyes, and I see the water rising in them. I’m both the sad person and the person wanting to comfort the sad person. And then I feel sad for that person who has so much compassion because she’s clearly been through the same thing, too. And the cycle keep repeating. It’s like when you go into a dressing room with a three-paneled mirror and you line them up just right to see the long narrowing hallway of yourselves diminishing into infinity. It feels like that, like I’m sad for an infinite number of my selves.
Her life is complicated further by two writers vying for her attention, an older, famous writer and single father, and one of his workshop students, a high school teacher with a chipped front tooth, less than sparkling prose, and a rusted-out car.
These relationships allow King to showcase her keen understanding of the experiences of women:
You get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them.
It is the combination of insight into human nature and the immediacy of her prose that makes reading King such a pleasure. Writers and Lovers has much to offer readers who are interested in the writing life and human relationships.