Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review: The Bookseller

An independent single career woman in Denver during the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn't stand a chance in Cynthia Swanson's novel The BooksellerPerhaps I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish the novel last night, but — man, I feel a little cheated by the story's resolution.

The premise of the story is intriguing. Kitty, a 30-something bookshop owner living in Denver in 1963, begins dreaming about a fictional life with a husband and children. It's a far cry from her current life in a cheerful duplex with Aslan the cat and her struggling bookstore she runs with her childhood friend Frieda.

 The dreams are vivid and appear to have an actual (albeit tenuous) connection to her waking hours. Most importantly, her dreams are perfect. Her husband is handsome, loving and supportive. Her children are charming, well-behaved and beautiful. Her home is custom-built, her wardrobe just-so. She is not disappointed when she goes to the Denver of her dreams.

At first.

The more time she spends, the more she wonders which world is real. Is she Katharyn, wife and mother, or is she Kitty, single gal and entrepreneur? Both worlds have their charm and pitfalls. Which will she choose?

For me, the stumbling point of this tale was the introduction of a character with a very modernly recognized ailment. The symptoms are extreme and the character is almost a caricature. There are other era-appropriate elements, such as smoking cigarettes in public places, large cars without car seats (but, inexplicably, seat belts in constant use), lots of liquor and intoxicated behavior, treatment of women like fragile dolls (if they're of means) and workhorses (if they're not). If the author's intention was to place it in time, Swanson did a thorough job. And yet it felt out of place.

The trigger for this dream confusion, when it's revealed, is almost a let-down. Granted, Swanson tries rather hard to build her case, that a woman who is living such a life based on certain decisions must reconcile her life with her dreams, and vice versa. Yet it feels artificial, as if the author herself is reprimanding Katharyn for those very decisions.

The characters are real, but they're not. Readers will feel a tug: just as they start to solidify, the characters shift. Yes, Kitty/Katharyn is herself confused, and readers must be in the moment to experience The Big Reveal. Yet the author keeps us all off-kilter and uncomfortable too long.

In the end, I can't say I would recommend this book. It's not a bad book, and Swanson is a good writer. Yet the ending was formulaic and disappointing, a let-down after the long road of reading about two very different and valuable lives.

If you have read it, do you agree with this assessment? Let me know!

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