Every once in a while, you discover a writer that completely knocks your socks off and a brand new obsession is born. For the past couple of weeks, Lily King has been that writer for me. I have devoured 4 of her books (one of them twice) in the past 2 weeks and I am currently working on a 5th. A friend recommended one of her books, and I was hooked by the 3rd page. I read the book twice before giving it back to her, then promptly bought my own copy because I wanted my wife to read it and I knew that I would be reading it again myself at some point in the near future. It is hard to describe King’s writing without appearing hyperbolic, but every wild claim that I might make about her work is true, at least to me. King’s writing is warm and inviting and transcendent and purposeful and creative and full of the most fantastic imagery. Reading it somehow feels like a conversation with an old friend and the excitement of a new romance and the internal recall of a cherished memory all at the same time. I’m sure it sounds like I am overselling her, but I assure that I am not.
Writers and Lovers (2020)
This was the first of Lily King’s books that I read, and it is definitely my favorite of hers. The novel is a coming of age story, but not in the way that we traditionally think of those being about a child growing up. The book covers that awkward period in your mid to late 20’s or early 30’s, where you go from being a young adult to suddenly just being an adult. The central character is Casey Peabody, an aspiring writer dealing with the sudden death of her mother, a complicated romantic life, and the desperate need to put words on a page and send part of yourself out into the world. The book is witty and poignant and heartbreaking and uplifting and just really fucking good. It immediately became one of my favorite books and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
“I don’t write because I think I have something to say, I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.”
“I would want kids to talk and write about how the book makes them feel, what it reminded them of, if it changed their thoughts about anything. I’d have them keep a journal and have them freewrite after they read each assignment. What did this make you think about? That’s what I’d want to know. I think you could get some really original ideas that way, not the old regurgitated ones like man versus nature. Just shoot me if I ever assign anyone an essay about man versus nature. Questions like that are designed to pull you completely out of the story. Why would you want to pull kids out of the story? You want to push them further in, so they can feel everything the author tried so hard to create for them.”
“There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose. I feel all that as I hold the phone and listen to Manolo talk about W-4s and the study hall schedule and my mailbox combination and faculty parking. For a moment all my bees have turned to honey.”
“It’s strange, to not be the youngest kind of adult anymore.”
“I can tell he lost someone close somehow. You can feel that in people, an openness, or maybe it’s an opening that you’re talking into. With other people, people who haven’t been through something like that, you feel the solid wall. Your words go scattershot off of it.”
“When I was visiting her a few years ago she hugged me and said, ‘Tomorrow after you leave I will stand here at this window and remember that yesterday you were right here with me.’ And now she’s dead and I have that feeling all the time, no matter where I stand.”
This was a damn fascinating book. It is based, very loosely, on Margaret Mead and expeditions involving two of her husbands. The narrative follows a trio of anthropologists researching tribes in New Guinea and the volatile relationships that they have with each other and the tribes they watch so closely. The book is masterfully written, full of tension and beauty and engaging observations about the human experience. The amount of research that must have gone into the book’s creation is impressive. The time period, the tribes, and the trio of main charcaters all seem completely real.
“I could not take my eyes off her. It was as if she were performing some trick, some sort of unfolding. There was something raw and exposed about her, as if many things had already happened between us, as if time had leapt ahead and we were already lovers.”
“You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense. You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can’t understand the words. Once comprehension comes, so much else falls away. You then rely on their words, and words aren’t always the most reliable thing.”
“I’ve always been able to see the savageness beneath the veneer of society. It’s not so very far beneath the surface, no matter where you go.”
“Perhaps all suicides are happy in the end. Perhaps it is at that moment that one feels the real point of it all, which, after you get yourself born, is to die.”
Father of the Rain (2010)
I did not warm to this one as quickly as I did either Writers & Lovers or Euphoria, but the book has stuck with me. And the more I reflect on it, the more I like it. The story is about a relationship between the central character, Daley, and her acoholic father, spanning three decades–the time period around her parents divorce when she was a child, a middle adult period when she reconnects with her father to help him get sober, and then another period years later after a long period of noncommunication. There is some beautiful writing here, which is typical of King, her words dance off the page. There is also some great character work. Daley is sympathetic and at times frustrating. Her father is suitably despicable. The book did feel a bit overlong at times, but it is still a very worthwhile read.
“Narrative is the way to communicate ideas. Philosophy just tastes bad to most people unless you wrap it up in a good story.”
“Isn’t that really all we’ve been saying to each other, generation after generation: ‘Be careful of me’? I am trying so hard to be careful with my children. I look at my father. He’s still whimpering a little. I’m sorry, I say silently. I’m sorry we couldn’t be more careful of each other.”
“I suppose it happens often enough. People rush to someone’s death bed and then they don’t die. Life, sometimes amazingly, lurches on.”
“The first time he met me, he told Julie I was a diamond in the rough. We laughed at the image, but secretly I puzzled over it for a long time, wondering exactly what on the outside was so rough, and where exactly the diamond was.”
Five Tuesdays In Winter (2020)
This collection of short stories is King’s most recent book. There are ten stories here, all of them excellent. It is rare for a story collection not to have a few throwaways, but every one of this book’s 231 pages feels vital. King’s prose shines in this shorter format, finding beauty in the melancholy and the mundane. The title story, Five Tuesdays In Winter, was my favorite. In it, King presents a single father bookstore owner navigating the awkward relationship with his preteen daughter and the insecurities of his romantic feelings for an employee. It is a beautiful story, and I found its main character endlessly compelling. Each of the remaining stories are as magnificently written. “When in the Dordogne” was another standout for me. The story covers a summer spent by a lonely young boy whose parents have hired two college students to housesit and keep an eye on their son for the summer. The story is both heartbreaking in depicting the child’s loneliness and inspiring in its depiction of his coming out of his shell. Reading this collection is time well spent.
“She was the type who could not take a compliment. If he told her she looked nice, she’d give the reason instead of saying thank you. But he was the type who could not give a compliment, so he just said hello and let her in.”
“When you die, she thought now, you can no longer give love. You can’t give love anymore. She wouldn’t be able to love her children. It struck her suddenly as the very worst thing about death, worse than not being able to breathe or laugh or kiss. A kind of existential suffocation, to not be able to give her children her love anymore.”
“Becca, though, I married. I don’t know how other people do it, not stay with the girl whose ankle socks made your stomach flip at age fourteen, whose wet hair smells like your past—the girl who was with you the very moment you were introduced to happiness.”
“Soon Paula would begin complaining that he didn’t understand her, didn’t appreciate her, didn’t love her enough, when in fact he loved her so much his heart often felt shredded by it.”