Books about/with books, writers
I picked up a bargain e-book last week, a “relationship fiction” novel by author Susan Mallery. I hadn’t read Mallery before, but she’s quite popular, apparently. Most of her books seem to edge over the line into romance, but some are more story- or character-driven. She has quite a few short series and some stand-alones, one of which I chose from the BookBub E-book Deals that arrive in my inbox each day, because I was drawn in by the title: Boardwalk Bookshop. I am a sucker for any book that includes bookstores, libraries, readers, and writers in its title or content, so it was inevitable.
Although supposedly about a bookshop, the store in question is actually one large space divided up into three separate retail establishments (bookstore, bakery, and gift shop) shared by three women who wanted shops on the beachfront but neither needed the larger space nor could afford the price tag on their own. Despite not knowing one another, they impulsively team up to lease the place, installing their three enterprises side by side, each operating independently with their own employees and cash registers but benefitting greatly from the cross traffic of the other two businesses.
Mikki, the gift store owner, is a recently divorced 39-year-old who has two almost-grown children and a comfortable co-parenting arrangement with her ex-husband. Although they have been apart for three years, Mikki has not really moved on; right after the divorce she went on three separate but equally disastrous dates with various partners and gave up. A planned solo trip to Europe has suddenly awakened her to the fact that she could live another 40 or 50 years and doesn’t want to do so alone, but she’s not sure she has it in her to put herself forward again as a single, datable woman, with all the trial-and-error that involves.
Ashley, the baker, is swoonily in love with her live-in boyfriend Seth, who seems like the perfect man and mate except for one large flaw that, when it manifests, throws Ashley for a loop and has her doubting him, herself, and what will ultimately become of their relationship.
Bree, the book purveyor, raised by indifferent, self-involved author parents, met a man equally as brilliant as they were but who seemed to promise what they never gave her—love and a sense of belonging. Instead, he betrayed her rather spectacularly and then died, leaving her a young widow whose walls don’t come down for anyone—even Ashley’s persistently interested brother, Harding (who is also a writer).
The three women, initially bonded over their joint enterprise, slowly become friends and weigh in on each other’s options for romance, personal growth, and more. There is a dynamic, well-fleshed-out cast of secondary characters to interact with them, and the Los Angeles seaside setting is well utilized.
I liked this book, with some reservations: I thought both the narrative and the language could have been more nuanced. I found each of the women in turn to be dithery about her choices and actions. The three kept circling around to the same indecisiveness again and again, and while this may be how real life goes, in a novel it became repetitive and a little irritating. But the growth and change ultimately exhibited by each of them, while uneven, did move along to satisfying conclusions for all, and I mostly enjoyed the reading experience. I could be persuaded to try some other Mallery titles, probably when I am looking for a light, fast read as a palate cleanser between more serious novels.
The second book-oriented story I read this week was The Woman in the Library, by Sulari Gentill, and it was a cat of a different color! I don’t remember where I came across this—it might have been on the readers’ Facebook group—but I’m so glad I picked it up, although others were not so happy with it. This is one of those books that (on Goodreads) either gets a five-star exclamation of “Yes!” from its reader, or a one-star “too weird for me.” I fell into the former group, with a few reservations—but mostly I was enthralled.
This book is the ultimate in meta, and the jump between reality and fiction is what kept me reading. The real-life set-up is that an Australian author of mysteries, Hannah Tigone, is writing a novel set in Boston, but she can’t travel from Sydney to do any on-site research due to Covid quarantine restrictions. Enter email pen pal Leo Johnson. Leo is initially introduced as an author trying to get his book published and reaching out to Ms. Tigone, a writer he admires, for suggestions or, preferably, actual assistance with finding an agent. But then Leo moves on to suggest that since he lives in Boston, he can easily assist with on-the-ground research, acting as a beta reader to give her information about locations and also vetting her language, since American slang differs markedly from Australian and it’s easy to slip up (calling a sweater a jumper, for instance) if you’re not paying attention.
After Leo’s initial email, the book moves into Hannah’s writing of her mystery. Her protagonist is Australian Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid, working on her own novel, living in Boston courtesy of the Marriott Scholarship, a writer’s grant that comes with a brownstone in Carrington Square. In the opening, Freddie has gone to the Boston Public Library for the day, planning to work on her book in its famous Reading Room, but is distracted by the three other people sitting at her table. She idly jots down notes on each of them as possible characters—she calls them Handsome Man, Heroic Chin, and Freud Girl—but then all four, along with the rest of the library users, are startled by a terrified scream coming from somewhere nearby. The library is locked down while security searches for the woman who cried out, and the four begin to chat about their immediate circumstance and a little about themselves; when they are released, they decide to go together to get something to eat, and this is the beginning of a four-way friendship.
It becomes harder as you go on to remember that Freddie is not the true protagonist, nor are these others real people—all are a part of Hannah’s story—but at the end of each chapter, the reader is yanked back to that reality by Leo’s comments on the last chapter Hannah has sent to him. Leo becomes increasingly invested in the contents of Hannah’s book, and…but that would be telling, and I have revealed enough. There are two stories here (or are there three?) and their juxtaposition and relation to one another kept me reading to finish this book in 48 hours.
The reservations I mentioned: The pacing wavers here and there, and sometimes the characters are a little flat—not well enough fleshed out. Also, insta-love rears its weary head. But these things didn’t bother me because they are, after all, part of a first draft of a manuscript! Remembering that as you go along makes everything completely believable, because Hannah still has the opportunity to come back and fix or change any of the details.
Hoping you pick this one up and are as delighted by it as I was, rather than falling into the group who considered it “weird.” The truth is, it IS weird and that’s what I liked!