Cynthia Swanson, The Bookseller

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Set in Denver in the early 1960s, Cynthia Swanson’s The Bookseller pulls us directly and immediately into the world of Kitty Miller. Kitty (never her stuffy given name, Katharyn) is single and 40ish. She lives alone with her cat, loves her parents, owns half of a failing bookstore, and has stopped wondering whether there isn’t something more to life.

Kitty is mostly content with her lot. She co-owns the bookstore with her long-time best friend, Frieda, and even though the store isn’t doing well, they have some options to explore. She receives regular postcards from her beloved parents who are vacationing in Hawaii (although the notes from her mom seem sometimes a little . . . gloomy) and she recognizes that her life may be at a crossroads. Still, she is largely content with her lot.

TheBooksellerThen she starts having vivid and evocative dreams about an alternative version of herself—a version called Katharyn. The Katharyn version made other choices than did Kitty, and as a direct result, her life has turned out quite differently.

The plot unfolds with Kitty’s attempts to reconcile the dream version of herself versus what she knows to be true. She has to grapple with which construct of herself is real, and which is fictive.

Katharyn is married to Lars Andersson, a successful Denver architect, and a man she quite unabashedly adores. They’re raising their children together, and the dream-life version of Kitty spends a fair amount of time fumbling around trying to figure out how to cope with the day-to-day challenges of being a daughter, wife, mother, and still remain an autonomous human being — all in Kennedy-era America. Katharyn sometimes fails spectacularly, but she keeps trying, nonetheless.  As a reader I found myself rooting for both versions of the protagonist: Kitty and Katharyn.

The setting is well-researched and fun. Everyone, but EVERYONE drinks and smokes in the early 60’s (although—in the interest of full disclosure—Katharyn and Lars have both quit smoking, since Lars’ heart-attack), and Swanson clearly did a good amount of research—but she incorporates that research by world-building a setting that’s both alien and familiar in fun and intrinsic ways. The Bookseller really does happen in a different time and place than the world the reader inhabits, but it’s never disorienting. You can easily envision this story inhabiting the same time and space as the characters from the hugely popular television show, Mad Men, and even without that cultural touchstone, the setting just plain works.

The Bookseller is author Cynthia Swanson‘s debut novel, and to be completely honest, it reads like a debut novel. There are a few wobbly moments. The protagonist sometimes comes off as narcissistic and immature. I’m still a bit grumpy because I felt like the author threw one of my favorite secondary characters under the metaphorical bus. But this is a compelling, vividly imagined, and ambitious novel that ultimately succeeds on oh-so-many levels.

I very much look forward to seeing what Cynthia Swanson writes next.

(Harper, 2015)

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