Book Review: Writers & Lovers by Lily King

Writers & Lovers
WRITERS & LOVERS by Lily King (Published by Picador in 2020)

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I decided to take a break from reading the Women’s Prize longlist, so I picked up Lily King’s new novel, Writers & Lovers. Writers & Lovers follows Casey, a young writer who’s struggling to make ends meet while finishing the novel she’s been working on for six years. Sounds promising, but unfortunately Writers & Lovers was a snoozefest. I almost DNF’ed it because it took me ages to get through the first half.

The main reason for this is the poor execution of… well, basically everything. First, the prose was so dry and stilted that I found myself blanking out frequently, with no memory of the last five pages I’d just read. I also didn’t like how the plot was handled. In the first half we just watch Casey go through the motions of her daily life (write, wait on tables, date, suffer crushing self-doubt, etc.), and it was unbearably dull and repetitive. It does pick up at around the 50% mark, but I wish that the author had spread out Casey’s internal struggles throughout the book instead of concentrating them on the second half, because it made the second half feel rushed and the ending unearned.

I can usually forgive a lack of plot if the book offers psychological insight into the characters, but Writers & Lovers also fails on that count. They were all stereotypical and one-dimensional, down to the charming token gay best friend who loyally supports her love life. Not even the protagonist is fleshed out—Casey comes off as a self-absorbed and unlikeable without being interesting in her unlikeableness.

Thematically speaking, because of the weak characterization, love and dating were explored in a predictable manner. All the men fell into types (tortured writer, single dad, quirky guy) and there was a mawkish “follow your heart” undertone to Casey’s choosing between them. I was also irritated by the atrocious metaphors for kisses in the book. When Casey talks about an old lover from Barcelona, for example, she says, “When he kissed me he smelled like Europe.” Um, what does that even mean? Has anyone ever kissed a European and thought, “Oh, gee, you smell like Europe”? Here’s another one: “You taste like the moon.” That’s from a former lover, a poet, and apparently Casey found that line memorable. Okay, sis, in the first place, no one has ever tasted the moon, and second, even if someone has, it’ll taste like ROCKS, not a woman’s lips. Plus, you can’t just slap “moon” or even “sun” and “stars” together with a woman’s body part (eyes, lips, hair, skin, you name it) and call it poetic. It just doesn’t work that way. Sorry, I’m ranting at this point, but all this is to say that Writers & Lovers doesn’t offer anything new in the “lovers” department, which is especially disappointing because it’s in the title.

The one saving grace of this novel that it treats the “writers” part decently. It offers a realistic and unsentimental depiction of a young woman struggling to make it in the arts. The most interesting parts were the ones that lifted a veil over the writer’s life, like seeing Casey struggle over writer’s block and gossip with her friends about other writers’ successes and failures. Her commentary on sexism in publishing also stayed with me: she observed that in their photos on book covers, men usually look stark, rugged, and menacing, while women usually have big apologetic smiles on their faces, as if to say, “Please like me. Even though I’m an award-winning novelist, I really am a nice, unthreatening person.” There were a smattering of other sharp observations like this, but I felt that they could’ve been snappier as a bunch of tweets.

Overall, Writers & Lovers succeeds in its realistic depiction of a young woman’s struggles to be a writer, but it suffered from the poor execution of that premise. The first half was dull and repetitive and the characters bland and uninteresting, which made it hard for me to connect to any of their struggles. But I’m clearly the minority in this one so I wouldn’t discourage others from giving it a shot, especially if you’re a writer or if you’re interested in the lives of writers. This just wasn’t for me, though. 2 out of 5 stars.

Have you read this book, or is it on your TBR? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from March 31 - April 2, 2020

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Writers & Lovers by Lily King

  1. sorry to see that you didnt like this one! ive seen a lot of positive reviews of it so far, which are surpising considering some of the flaws of the books that you mentioned (“he smelled like Europe” lol). it sounds like it was trying to be poetic with its language but ended up being kind of nonsensical instead…

    1. I was surprised at how much I disliked this, too, given all the positive reviews. Lol yeah that line had me rolling my eyes so hard. I guess my expectations of it were so high since it’s a writer writing about writing. Bad lines like that really stick out like a sore thumb. If you do plan on picking it up I hope you’ll have more luck at it than I did!

  2. Sorry to hear this was a disappointment for you! I’m glad there was at least one saving grace, but overall it does sound pretty unsatisfactory. The similes you shared both made me cringe; I imagine it was probably worse when reading the whole book.

    1. Glad I wasn’t the only one who found those cringe-y. I guess I was even more disappointed by it because I had such high standards for the book, given it’s about writing. But oh well, on to better reads. 🙂

  3. When I was in an MFA program, it was an absolute rule that you didn’t write about writing. The concern was falling into an egotistical look at one’s own life as if it is so interesting when in reality you’re sitting in a room with 9 other people living the same existence, let alone the hundreds of other MFA candidates across the country. Boooooring. There are already enough novels by young men with a first-person narrator (clearly the author) who walks around a major city and had no purpose, just totally filled with ennui.

    1. There’s an actual rule?! But also, it makes so much sense that there’s an actual rule, or else you’d be workshopping pieces with similar material. I wish the author of this had gotten the memo too though. “There are already enough novels by young men with a first-person narrator (clearly the author) who walks around a major city and had no purpose, just totally filled with ennui” clearly describes this book, and it doesn’t even do it in an interesting or original way.

      1. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a rule that was written down, but if you wrote about writing, your thesis advisor would definitely tell you to start over.

        One author who kept writing the young man narrator who walks around is Tao Lin. He has a mini cult following. The weird thing to me is that not only are his plots boring, but he’s an accused sex offender. And yet the cult following remains.

  4. Literary Elephant

    Oh no, I was cautiously optimistic about this one but it sounds like a slog! Books about writing don’t always work for me anyway, I should have trusted my gut and steered clear. But… I do have a copy already and will probably check it out at some point. Seems best to lower my expectations before picking it up!

    1. I’m fascinated with books about writing, but this just didn’t work for me. There were also a lot of levels of meta that could’ve been mined—a writer writing about a writer who’s writing about writing—but it just ended up being ironic since the execution was so bad. I look forward to your thoughts when you do get to reading it!

  5. Ok, the “you smell like Europe” made me laugh because even though I’ve smelled many wonderful smells in Europe, for some reason the first thing that came to mind was walking under a bridge in Switzerland and realizing that someone had very recently peed nearby!

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