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Book Review: The Book Lover: A Novel by Maryann McFadden

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If you love relationship novels that keep you turning the pages, and if you’re curious about writers and booksellers, look no further for your next summer read  than The Book Lover: A Novel. The first and last stages of a book’s life cycle are embodied in the two main characters of this novel by Maryann McFadden (author of The Richest Season and So Happy Together). The younger character, 39-year-old Lucy Barrett, is a writer. The older character, 64-year-old Ruth Hardaway, is an independent (nonchain) bookseller.

The two characters meet because Ruth has arranged for Lucy to do a signing at her bookstore. Both women have high hopes for the success of Lucy’s book. As the story unfolds, the reader learns what writers and booksellers worry about as they jump through their particular hoops. For readers who are not familiar with the demands of the book world, the story will open their eyes to the beginning and end of the process (not the publishing part itself).

The book world, however, is not the real world, and the narrative tension comes from the personal lives of Lucy and Ruth as they come to grips with choices they have made and choices they need to make. Both Lucy and Ruth have been keeping secrets from their loved ones.

Lucy has not only written but self-published a book and has yet to tell her husband, David, about it. Ruth has been developing a friendship with Thomas, a convicted felon, but has kept her feelings from him and everyone else.

There are many more secrets to be uncovered as Lucy and Ruth and others in their lives become part of the story. I was reminded of a quotation my grandmother passed along to me: “Ah, what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive.” And fodder for a novel, no?

Maryann McFadden’s writing employs a lot of foreshadowing and keeps you turning the pages. There are 50 chapters, mostly short, usually containing two scenes, and usually switching between what’s happening with Lucy and what’s happening with Ruth. You get used to the pace, which doesn’t ask you to think too hard about underlying motivations.

Even so, as events fly along, the story calls into service many truths about us humans. One of the story’s key ideas is that we’re prone to telling white lies or lies by omission when we feel that telling the whole truth may keep us from getting what we want. Lucy lies in bed one night “…exhausted, her mind continuing to go over the past, the puzzle still trying to work itself in her brain. Why did she seem to avoid the truth in some of the most important moments of her life?”

A common thread across all the characters (there are many more than Lucy and Ruth) is a decision, a final willingness to move out of their comfort zones in order to change the lives they have grown dissatisfied with. The decisions are positive and empowering.

The book walks a tightrope when it comes to conveying the difficulties of promoting and selling books without the imprimatur of an established publishing house or online and chain retailers—a major reason The Book Lover exists. The author wants to help inform readers about the hard work and pitfalls involved, and she has created two plots and several subplots that keep the reader interested without feeling preached to. By the time the following information is given, the story has introduced enough of the small-town community within which Ruth’s bookstore operates that the reader will get the message in the manner intended.

Megan, one of the employees at Ruth’s bookstore, explains how shopping locally helps everyone. “If you spend $25 in your town at an independent store, $13.75 stays in your community. If it’s a big box or chain store, it would be $3.90. If you spend that same $25 on the internet, you’re giving $0 to your community … No one wants boarded-up shops on Main Street, but in some places, that’s what you have.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, The Book Lover is a 2012 Indie Next Pick (recommendations from independent booksellers). The author talks about her book in the video here.

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About Meredith Ann Rutter