TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Lily King's 2014 novel "Euphoria" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and made most critics' best books list that year. King has just brought out her fifth novel called "Writers & Lovers," and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's another winner.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: One evening many years ago, I was sitting around my grad school studio apartment when the phone rang. To call it a studio, by the way, is overselling the place; it was a closet with a bay window carved out of a West Philadelphia rowhouse. I was in my late 20s, single, still slowly writing my dissertation and scraping by on part-time adjunct teaching jobs. The caller was a woman I'd gone to college with, a business major. She was fundraising for our alma matter. But before getting to the ask, she filled me in on her life's milestones - a job at an investment bank, a husband, a child on the way. What about you? She asked. What about me? For anyone who's experienced or is still experiencing the dread feeling of being stuck in the life stage of becoming when it seems that everyone else has already become, Lily King's latest novel, "Writers & Lovers," will strike a chord. With wit and what reads like deep insider wisdom, King captures the chronic low-level panic of taking a leap into the artsy unknown and finding yourself adrift, without land in sight.
The main character and narrator of King's fifth novel is Casey Peabody, a 31-year-old woman who's been working on a novel for six years. When the story opens in the summer of 1997, Casey has moved to Cambridge, Mass., where she's recovering from the shock of her mother's sudden death and the end of her latest affair. To support herself and make minimal payments on her student loan debts, Casey waitresses at an upscale restaurant in Harvard Square. She lives in a moldy room on the side of a garage, and her landlord revels in snide comments about her writing. In fact, many of the people Casey meets feel the need to mock her literary ambitions.
Here's a beautifully paced scene where Casey is in the middle of a gynecological exam with a new doctor.
(Reading) So you're a writer. He widens the speculum by turning some knob, and it feels like a sudden period cramp. I feel like a car being jacked up for a tire change. What have you published? Nothing, really. A short story in a small magazine a few years ago. He's not really listening. He unwraps a long Q-tip and inserts it. So you going to write the great American novel? I'm tired of that question. You going to cure ovarian cancer? He pulls the speculum out of me, and everything deflates. He sits back in his round swivel chair and looks me in the eye for the first time. Touche, he says.
It's not enough that Casey has to steel herself daily to quiet her own creative anxieties; she's also got to deal with condescending babbitts like this doctor. The entrance of two new men into her life complicates Casey's sense of who she is. Unreliable Silas is a teacher and fellow writer in the trenches whose kissing melts her bones. Oscar is a middle-aged widower and established novelist who seems like the full package, grounded and ready to propose. But entertaining as these rom-com interludes are, work more than romance lies at the core of "Writers & Lovers."
Much as Daniel Defoe enthralled the earliest readers of the novel with descriptions of Robinson Crusoe as fence-building and goat-milking, King pays Casey's exhausting daily labors as a server at that pricey Harvard Square restaurant the respect of particularity - hustling to keep her tables supplied with drinks and food, drying glasses and rolling silverware at the end of a long dinner shift. And when Casey finally does return home to her room, more work awaits. The ego-depleting work of plugging away at her novel. The hardest thing about writing, Casey says, 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.
"Writers & Lovers" is a funny and compassionate novel about the cost of sticking with the same dream for what may be too long. It doesn't have the historical reach of King's last novel, the acclaimed "Euphoria," about the life of the young Margaret Mead. But it shares with that novel a fascination with female ambition and with how especially difficult it is for a woman to define the worth of her life when the familiar markers of adult achievement are slow to materialize.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Writers & Lovers" by Lily King. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus. My guests will be POLITICO reporter Dan Diamond, who investigates health care policy and politics and has broken several stories about the epidemic and about dysfunction within the agencies that are supposed to be managing the epidemic. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE BALANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.