Publisher: Galley Books
Format: Paperback, 352 pages
A witty, sharply observed debut novel about a young woman who finds unexpected salvation while working in a quirky used bookstore in Manhattan.
Impressionable and idealistic, Esme Garland is a young British woman who finds herself studying art history in New York. She loves her apartment and is passionate about the city and her boyfriend; her future couldn’t look brighter. Until she finds out that she’s pregnant.
Esme’s boyfriend, Mitchell van Leuven, is old-money rich, handsome, successful, and irretrievably damaged. When he dumps Esme—just before she tries to tell him about the baby—she resolves to manage alone. She will keep the child and her scholarship, while finding a part-time job to make ends meet. But that is easier said than done, especially on a student visa.
The Owl is a shabby, second-hand bookstore on the Upper West Side, an all-day, all-night haven for a colorful crew of characters: handsome and taciturn guitar player Luke; Chester, who hyperventilates at the mention of Lolita; George, the owner, who lives on protein shakes and idealism; and a motley company of the timeless, the tactless, and the homeless. The Owl becomes a nexus of good in a difficult world for Esme—but will it be enough to sustain her? Even when Mitchell, repentant and charming, comes back on the scene?
A rousing celebration of books, of the shops where they are sold, and of the people who work, read, and live in them, The Bookstore is also a story about emotional discovery, the complex choices we all face, and the accidental inspirations that make a life worth the reading.
The following review is based on a review copy I got from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
The Bookstore is a contemporary novel about a 23-year-old English girl in New York working on her PhD in Art History who finds herself pregnant and is trying to make it all work out despite keeping the baby. I’ll be honest – I usually don’t like reading about pregnant characters. It just freaks me out and I often find myself annoyed when characters suddenly gets pregnant halfway through the book. However, I was interested in this book because I love reading about bookstores and it promised to have a cast of quirky characters.
I did have problems with the novel, but the pregnancy actually wasn’t one of them. My main issue was that Esme and Mitchell just never worked for me as a couple, not even one of those that are often fighting. I felt no connection at all between them, so Esme’s need for him and staying in love with him and running after him even when he treated her like crap just never made sense to me. He was playing games with her, making her debase herself or guilt-tripping her into things, and very often she didn’t even notice, or at least not until it was too late. I wished she would have stood up for herself more. I wished she wouldn’t have thought that to love a person is to submit to them. I also thought that sometimes, she was really naïve and (sorry) a little stupid for someone of her age and education. On the other hand, she was a very compassionate, thoroughly good kind of person. Still, she sometimes had doormat qualities and that made it hard for me to really empathize with her and her decisions.
Mitchell was just despicable. He made Esme feel low on purpose. He was obviously more experienced than her – ten years older, accomplished, from old money, house in the Hamptons. It was obvious his family wouldn’t approve of Esme. Almost a cliché, actually, though there were some scenes with his father and Esme where the character gained more depth. I still don’t know what Mitchell’s deal really was with her. He kept popping up and disappearing and I basically wished he’d just stay gone.
Now, to something more positive that I really enjoyed: the cast of supporting characters around Esme! I loved her friend Stella – she was really supportive and always ready to pick her up, tell her the plain truth, and encourage her. Also, the people working at the bookstore or otherwise connected to it were very unique and wonderful characters. Especially George and Luke! The store was described in all its homey details and I wish there were places like that near where I live. It was really nice, to see a bunch of virtual strangers grow together around Esme and helping her support herself when Mitchell takes off.
I’m not sure what to make of the pace of the novel. Sometimes the switch between scenes was a little abrupt. Something was said, and I wished I could see the aftermath instead of it being the end of a chapter. I also think that some scenes could have been dropped to make the story feel more dynamic. Sometimes I wondered what it was all working towards, but then again I think this is one of the books where the journey is definitely more important than the destination. Most of the time I was happy to just follow along and see what would happen.
The novel also has ambitions to be Literary, but I’m not sure how well that worked out. There were a few nice references and nods to W.H. Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts, T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock (one of my favorite poems) and, I think, also to the ending of Joyce’s The Dead, but it didn’t really work for me in combination with the rest of the style and subject matter. Sometimes a character would make some profound statement, but it would stand out like a monologue, or seem a little pretentious, or it just didn’t strike me as something new that had never been said or noticed before. This is just me though, and it might be different for someone else.
Despite all that, I did enjoy The Bookstore, it just wasn’t quite as great as I had hoped. The cast of characters was diverse and engaging and it captured a New York atmosphere that made it easy to imagine myself walking through the city at Esme’s side. In spite of some of her decisions, I guess she is a likeable character and many other readers should be able to relate to her even at points when I couldn’t. I also liked the stance the book took in relation to her pregnancy and her decision to keep the baby and the consequences following from that. I’d recommend The Bookstore to those looking for a nice late-summer/early-autumn type of read that takes you on an emotional journey and leaves you on a positive note.
Have you read The Bookstore? What did you think of it? Did I just miss that spark of amazing? Or, if you haven't read it, does it sound like the type of book that interests you?