Writing about writers writing is a dangerous gambit. The practice can seem lazy or self-satisfied. In the right hands, though, a tale of literary growth can soar above the pitfalls.

Cover courtesy of Grove Atlantic

That’s certainly the case with Maine resident Lily King‘s follow-up to her well-received best-seller “Euphoria.”

Set mostly in Cambridge, Massachusetts, circa 1997, “Writers & Lovers” finds first-person protagonist Casey Peabody at emotional and financial loose ends. A tempestuous affair with a married poet has left her devastated. Her mother died suddenly on a vacation to South America. A former golf prodigy, Casey has drifted away from her younger brother’s orbit and is semi-estranged from her father, who pushed her to excel on the links, before he wrecked his own coaching career in a particularly embarrassing way. And she can’t seem to finish the novel she’s been working on for six years.

At age 31, Casey finds herself saddled with an insane amount of student debt and begins waiting tables at Iris, an upscale restaurant in Harvard Square. Although she often finds it exhausting, serving suits her, and she’s able to do her job with skill and grace and maintain amiable relationships with most of her colleagues. She’s also able to write during her off hours, with her close friend Muriel urging Casey to let her read the final draft already.

Although still romantically skittish, Casey attracts the attention of two very dissimilar men. A widowed middle-aged father of two, Oscar is a well-established novelist. She finds his young boys adorable, but when Oscar asks her to move in with them, Casey is reluctant to open herself up to him so drastically. She writes, “He doesn’t know how I live, how far I need to run, how much I owe, how little I sleep, or that I’ve now gotten rejections from three agents.”

Casey’s other admirer, a high school teacher/would-be author named Silas, is closer to her age and level of literary expertise. Silas seems so tentative in his pursuit of her – disappearing for weeks without warning – that Casey has trouble taking him seriously, saying, “I’m done with guys like this, on and off, here then there. I’ve learned my lesson.”

Casey is a sharply observant main character, with a narrative voice that both sparkles and sometimes cuts. She is serious about being a writer, but doesn’t take that seriousness too far. Other characters around her, too enmeshed in parenthood and more lucrative careers, drop the notion of writing fiction. Casey perseveres.

During her 3-mile runs to work, Casey encounters a flock of visiting Canada geese, creatures whose freedom and companionship she envies. “I love these geese. 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.”

What does seem underplayed in “Writers & Lovers” is Casey’s relationship with her deceased mother. King writes touchingly about the mother’s absence and the grief it inspires. Casey reminisces about “… her lemon smell and her gardening gloves with the rubber bumps and her small square toes that cracked when she walked barefoot. Her tortoiseshell headbands that were salty at the tips if you sucked on them.”

Perhaps another scene or two filled with those kinds of details would have made Casey’s mother a more vivid presence in the novel.

King has either waited tables or otherwise done her research, because the restaurant scenes, rendered in telling detail, bubble with energy. Casey has her rough edges, but she’s a thoroughly engaging protagonist. King writes dialogue that’s funny, melancholy and sometimes raw.

Probably wisely, King resists any temptation she might have to quote from Casey’s work-in-progress. Too often, authors creating this kind of literary situation want to play dress-up with their style or subject matter and thereby prove their own versatility. King has enough confidence to leave her protagonist’s creative work only very slightly summarized. When it’s Casey’s time to face professional critical judgment, there is a genuine feeling of suspense.

“Writers & Lovers” grows darker as it progresses, to the point where Casey thinks she might have a cancerous lump. Even as she contemplates her own mortality, she also has to navigate the intentions of the men in her life. King mostly keeps the various conflicts in balance, veering away from both the melodramatic and the banal.

Charming, insightful and witty, “Writers & Lovers” is a perfect book for spring, offering hope that desire can be re-kindled, that grief can be held at bay and that good books will find publishers and an audience.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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