I’m usually leery of literary novels, but this one was about a bookstore, at least according to the title. I’m a book lover. I had to read it. Was it really about a bookstore? No. Was it literary? Oh, yes. And like with many literary novels, I’m a bit confused in my impressions. I can’t say that I loved it and I can’t say that I didn’t. Somewhere in between.
The plotline is straightforward. Esme, the protagonist, is studying on a scholarship at Columbia University for her PhD in art history when she discovers she is pregnant. Her glorious boyfriend Mitchell, a charismatic playboy from an old moneyed family, breaks up with her soon after, before she even gets the chance to tell him about the baby. Determined to keep her baby and her place at Columbia, Esme starts working part time for an old secondhand bookstore.
Then Mitchell shows up again and asks for a second chance. Of course, he doesn’t want the baby, but he accepts Esme’s blunt refusal of an abortion. On the surface. He even proposes. Esme should be walking on clouds, but she isn’t. She is clearly unhappy, even though she wouldn’t admit it, even to herself. She keeps telling herself and everyone else that she loves Mitchell, but I can’t get her. Our disagreement about her scum of a boyfriend is at the root of my ambivalence about the novel.
I don’t see love between Esme and Mitchell. In my view, love between two partners is all about understanding and acceptance. And it should be fun, should bring joy and laughter. All of those ingredients are missing from Esme and Mitchell’s relationship. He is a controlling freak, a manipulator, running a game with Esme, pulling her strings. The fact that it was not his decision to keep the baby twists him in knots, and he retaliates repeatedly, but Esme doesn’t fight back. She meekly takes all his verbal cruelties as a given, always forgiving, always finding excuses for him.
I don’t think he loves her; he loves only himself. And Esme doesn’t love him either, not the real man. She loves the idea of love, her fantasy of Mitchell that has nothing to do with reality.(show spoiler)
Mitchell is the only human character in this story sharply defined. Everyone else, including Esme, is blurry, as if their personalities blend together into one amorphous non-Mitchell. They are all nice, kind people, Esme’s friends and the bookstore folks, but interchangeable. The only other great character in the novel is New York, the city where Esme lives and works. She is in love with New York, and her love pours off the page, into the readers’ hearts. And unlike Mitchell, New York reciprocates. It loves Esme and her baby. It welcomes them and nurtures them. They have fun together.
I’ve only visited New York once for a few days, but reading this book felt like another visit. It made me want to travel there again.
Unlike the city, the bookstore is just a background, a colorful backdrop. It allows lots of literary allusions but not really plays any part in the story. It might’ve been an underwear store or a thrift store, and the story would still be the same. So many possibilities wasted with that one.
The action is slow and contemplative, like in most literary novels, but the writing is pretty good, with the occasional flare of insight or rare humor splashes that were a pleasure to read.
Overall, an enjoyable read but nothing outstanding.