CBR9 #4: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

booksellerIt’s such a bummer when you read a book that’s just “eh”.

If it’s something you hate, you can decide if you want to cast it out of your life and be done with it or if you want to revel in how bad it is, knowing you’ll be able to write a fun review. (See Dan Brown. And also Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy.)

But an “eh” book is tough because maybe it’ll get better. Maybe there will be a twist or an ending that’s satisfying.  Or maybe you’ll finish it and it won’t be great and you’ll be mad you spent time on a book that wasn’t your thing.

That is  what I have been struggling with while reading The Bookseller. It’s not a bad book. I’m curious about the conflict and unknown. It’s not the type of book where I don’t care about the characters.

But… eh.

It’s human nature to wonder about the life we don’t have.  The one we’d be living in today if we had chosen a different college.  Taken the bus instead of walking.  Not answered the phone.  Got the job.  Turned left instead of right.

Kitty is currently living both of these lives right now, only one version is an incredibly real dream.  Here, she’s married and has children.  She somehow knows how to be a wife and mother.  She is deeply in love with her husband.  There is an easiness here.  Bills are paid.  Grocery lists are organized by meal.  Days are scheduled.  She is Kathryn.

In Kitty’s waking world, there is confusion.  She and her best friend are struggling to keep their bookstore open.  There are no dates.  No love.  But there is friendship and the familiar and she’s never felt miserable.  Just… maybe not completely whole.

Kathryn, however, is complete.  Dependable.  She knows what to do and what to say.  How to be a mother.

But something is wrong here and Kitty is having a hard time keeping up with the rules of the dream.

And then the book turned and went from being “eh” to becoming “What in the hell?”

Kitty starts remembering things in Kathryn’s world that she shouldn’t know.  Then she starts forgetting things in her waking world.  She’s lost two days, sort of.  She knows she must have gone to work, but doesn’t remember how she got there.  Dreaming, Kathryn can’t remember how to drive from the park to the grocery store, but she knows what kind of shoes to get for her kid.

Clearly something was going to be decided and I couldn’t tell what it was.  Was Kathryn dead?  Was Kitty dead?  Did Kitty get to decide to go to sleep and never wake up and stay as Kathryn?  Would Kathryn overthrow Kitty?  Was she in a mental institution?  Was ANY of this real?

I burnt through the last third of the book because I could not figure out what was real.  Or was ANY of it real?

I liked being confused, even if I was worried Swanson wasn’t going to be able to end it in a way that made sense.

I liked the setting of this one a lot.  It’s early 1960’s and women don’t have it super awesome.  Kitty and her best friend have their own bookstore, but had to have Frieda’s father cosign because women can’t get loans.  They’re in their thirties and unmarried and there’s a mix of freedom and “Oh, how sad.”

And there are infuriating moments where women are blamed for things they have no control over.  I thank science for figuring out that A did not happen because of B.  Things happened in Kitty’s dream life of Kathryn that made me clench my jaw because I’m sure women are still told it’s their fault if they need to get a c-section.  And that it’s the mother’s fault if things aren’t right at home.  And the wife’s fault if there is unease in the marriage.  It’s worse here though because there is no one telling her that this is all bullshit.  Little details that made the book feel honest.

This is another addition to the “What if…” conversations that we will continue to have.  What would your life be like if you kissed that person?  What if you had ordered the chicken instead of the pasta?  If you had left your house ten minutes before you did?  If you had taken the later flight?

And what would you do if you dreamt an entirely different life?  Would you wake up?

 

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