Book review: Bookish People by Susan Coll

(courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

If you ask most people, especially inveterate readers for whom books hold an almost mystically romantic quality, working in a bookstore would have to be the best of all possible worlds.

The people who work there talk highly about the merits and rewards of helping books and people make happily rewarding matches, but they are also sage, and to an extent, world weary enough to know that employment in a bookstore is not always the superlative employment opportunity it’s dreamily assumed to be.

One person who knows this better than most is the protagonist of Bookish People by Susan Coll, Sophie Bernstein, long-time owner of an unnamed independent bookstore in Washington, D.C., who, grappling with the burden of almost twenty years of bookstore ownership and the recent sudden death of her beloved husband Solomon, is wondering why on earth she’s even bothering any more.

She even goes so far as to admit that she’s “even starting to become hostile to books”, a startling admission for any booklover, but one borne of a thousand different pressures bearing down upon and within her, all of whom accentuated by the recent (for the 2017-set book, anyway) incident in Charlottesville where a white supremacist drove their car into anti-fascist activists, killing one and injuring more, which stoke in Sophie, a Jewish woman with an appreciation for how darkly cruel humanity can be, a fear that her already fragile world is crumbling into places she does not want to experience.

There is another reason she [Sophie] is partial to Clemi; she reminds Sophie of herself at that age. She, too, was intense and serious and fiercely literary, always talking about and even defending books as if they were kids being bullied on the playground. She took it personally when someone in her seventh-grade classroom raised her hand and delivered a diatribe against The Catcher in the Rye, even though Sophie hadn’t like the book much herself.

Scared that history is nightmarishly repeating one of its most horrific chapters, she makes plans to retreat to a walled-off room deep in the bookstore, a “350 square feet of windowless, dusty solitude” in which she can hide should the world plunge into the darkness she fears is coming.

On some level she knows this is not the way to handle either her grief, the increasingly noxious world around her or her disillusionment with bookselling, but rationality is not exactly a close companion when you’re in the state in which Sophie, who’s always been warmly enthusiastic and inclusive to staff (though she wonders if she could have done more) and customers alike, surprisingly finds herself.

A knowingly sober love letter to bookselling from someone who has spent many years in the trade, Bookish People captures all the joys and madness of working in a bookstore, echoing the idea that it has many benefits but also all too cognisant of the fact that like any profession, it has considerable downsides too.

Downsides which are being thrown into ever sharper relief for not only Sophie, who is wondering how she will cope when her decade-long bookstore manager, Jamal, moves with his husband and kids to Chicago to study law, but also events coordinator Clemi who, in-between trying unsuccessfully to write a breakthrough novel and become the writer of which she’s also dreamed, is trying to wrangle authors who are either too afraid to go on or embroiled in the kind of controversy of which no bookstore wants to be a part.

(courtesy Macmillan Publishers /Photo Credit: © Lauren Shay Lavin)

Moving between heartfelt introspection, existential exasperation and farcical hilarity – the day on which two events are being staged, each with their own challenges for Clemi (one is for controversial poet, Raymond Chaucer, who may or may not be her father) while Sophie is trying to secretly get work done on her hideaway, break into a vacuum cleaner (a long and amusing story) and deal with her son Michael’s inability to settle on a meaningful career, is a joy to read all by itself – Bookish People is one of those exquisitely good books that says a great deal without making a big fuss about it.

It is, much of the time, a slice of life, day-by-day affair and while things become increasingly hard to deal with for both Sophie and Clemi, Coll never resorts to melodrama or overblown description, choosing instead to place some extraordinarily wearing events in the context where they happen for pretty all of us – smack bang in the middle of the grinding banality of every day life.

This means that even as the farce amps up, and issues go from niggling to exasperatingly large, near terrifying or emotionally overwhelming, Bookish People always feels like s story which lives in the quiet moments rather than boisterously overblown ones.

So, even at its most outrageously funny and emotionally searing – the window on grief and loss, both actual and imagined, is tangible and richly affecting – Bookish People never feels overdone, sitting neatly in an accessible place which makes sense to any of use who have ever felt that life, despite its quite ordinary trappings, is off the charts exhaustingly bonkers.

She’s [Sophie] been so stuck inside her head, so consumed by her loneliness and fears and her petty and not so petty concerns, that she’s sort of forgotten there is an entire universe out there that contains amazing things. The sun, the moon, the stars, her scrambled ones included. Solomon is out there somewhere too–in what way, or what form, she can’t say, but she can feel his presence, especially right now. Who knows what else is out there: the souls of her pet birds and her many broken vacuum cleaners, although she supposes the latter is less about the cosmos than the landfill.

While events pivot largely around Sophie and Clemi, Bookish People also does a neat job of bringing forth supporting characters such as Noah, a privileged young man who’s not really present for either the people he knows or the place he works, and Clemi’s housemate Florence, a passionate young woman teetering on the edge of a mental health crisis, unaware she is that close to dropping off the edge.

It’s the care and effort that Coll puts into these supporting characters that makes the story as a whole, and the main characters of Sophie and Clemi come even more alive, further enriching a novel already ripe with lived experience, insight into the way grief and loss can distort and reshape reality into frightening configurations, and a knowing understanding that even the things we love don’t always match expectations and can sometimes become more onerous hell than light joyfulness.

Bookish People is one those novels that stays quiet and thoughtful throughout (though with a gloriously fun, screwball comedy bent), while, with a ready mix of buoyant wit, sage insight and an appreciable sense of life’s sudden ups and down, going to some deeply meaningful and moving places, the kind that can test us, but which, if we’re surrounded by the people we know and love, around us, can lead us to something very good indeed.

Eventually, anyway …

Related Post