Title: The Bookseller
Author: Cynthia Swanson
Length: 338 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
Though she’s still unlucky in love at thirty-eight, Kitty Miller has embraced her life as the co-owner of a quaint bookshop, which she runs with her best friend in 1960s Denver. She doesn’t have a conventional life, but she has her independence and people who love her and whom she loves in return. Then one day, Kitty wakes up in someone else’s bedroom. In this incredibly lifelike dream, she is married with young children and, better yet, in love with her soft-spoken, attentive husband. As time passes, Kitty’s strange dreams become more frequent and–up to a point–more enticing. She begins to lose track of reality and to dwell more and more on her dream-life until she fears she that the life she already has may slip away from her.
Note: This review is mostly spoiler-free; I’ve included one spoiler is included in my Goodreads review.
All that we see or seem / is but a dream within a dream. [Edgar Allen Poe]
About ten years ago–and I cannot believe that it’s been that long–I was really into this webcomic called “The Dreamer” (which I actually keep meaning to catch up on…). It’s about a modern-day teenager who wakes up smack in the middle of revolutionary-era Massachusetts every night after she goes to sleep. Everything seems real, sometimes frighteningly real, but every day she wakes back up in her “real” life.
That’s the basic premise of The Bookseller, and it had me hooked; I was convinced I knew which world was real, which was a dream, and what the point of it all was. And guess what? I was wrong. At least, I think I was wrong. Surprise!
The year is 1962. Kitty Miller is an unmarried thirty-eight-year-old ex-teacher who runs a small bookstore with her longtime best friend, Frieda. She lives alone except for her cat, but isn’t unhappy. She thinks romance has more or less passed her by and has accepted it. She has Frieda, to whom she refers as a sister; her beloved parents, and of course her furry friend…
…unless the year is really 1963, in which Katharyn Andersson (nee Miller) is a confused and stressed married mother who gave up her business career to tend to her children.
Kitty begins having dreams about this alternate life, one she shares with her slightly stocky and balding but otherwise dreamy (pun sort of intended) husband Lars, while her parents are away in Hawaii and as the bookstore begins facing yet more financial woes. She dreams so vividly and so often that she starts losing track of what’s real and what’s part of her dreams. As I said, I thought the plot was going to go one way and that the larger message would reflect that direction. Unfortunately, it went the other, and I was…disappointed. I guess I should’ve seen it coming, given some of the details in the narrative(s), but it was still a real let-down.
Part of the reason was because I liked and empathized with Kitty a lot. Kitty, not her dream-self Katharyn, whose life was supposed to seem charmed (I thought, anyway) but really…didn’t. Granted I’m not an “old maid” yet, even by 60s standards, but I’ve never had any serious relationships–or any other kind, for that matter–and I’ve also got a flagging social life. Of course I think about how having someone might be nice, as Kitty does, but I try not to let it get me down. Most of the time, I’m willing to curl up with my cat and read or watch TV or whatever (as I did while reading this book, actually). And heck, just as Kitty has a cat named Aslan, I once had a cat named for a Lord of the Rings character! I appreciated the whole “there’s more to life than Married With Children” message.
But Kitty’s sympathetic, likable voice and personality sort of break down when she’s narrating her dream sequences as Katharyn. I can’t explain in great detail without spoilers, but while at first the dreams were charming, I just found Kitty and her storyline more interesting and, well, less predictable. She and her friend are both independent woman in an era when independent, entrepreneurial women were far rarer–though of course not unheard of–than they are today. This selection of a Goodreads review sums all my feelings up perfectly: “I totally enjoyed reading this book (I gobbled it up amazingly quickly), but I found myself loving Kitty-the-bookseller, with her cat and her adoring parents and her best friend Frieda and their little bookshop on a corner left behind when the streetcars stopped running in Denver. And while I’m sure I was supposed to want Kitty to be Katharyn, with her gorgeous husband and cute little [ones], I never did.”
Speaking of Kitty’s best friend Frieda, she seemed a bit off to me from the beginning. She’s not very likable for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on, and as the novel progresses, she only comes across as worse and worse…and let’s not talk about what the author does to her in the last thirty pages or so. And Lars, Kitty’s dream husband…well, he’s definitely believable as the product of a fantasy. He’s so perfect and patient that it becomes grating after a while rather than delightful.
I will say that, apart from some overzealous descriptions of Katharyn’s house, I thought Swanson did a good job making me feel like I was in the 1960s and especially in the midst of the Rockies without it being overkill. I could almost see the peaks and feel the thin mountain air. The racial issues Kitty brings up are handled a bit clumsily by the author, and like some other readers I had no idea what to make about her portrayal of disability. It only feels disrespectful towards the beginning, when it could reasonably be written off as a realistic representation of the ignorance of fifty years ago, and there are a few touching moments surrounding the disability subplot. But I think I’ll leave that judgment up to others with more experience on that topic to judge.
I read The Bookseller in one day. Again, I liked Kitty and her world, and her dreams intrigued me. So at the end of it all, I came away with an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction–of “that’s it?” if you will. The book is well-written enough, though it can be very repetitive in places–where are all these poor authors’ editors?!–and I sympathized with the MC enough to feel rotten for her as circumstances in both her reality and her dreams slide downhill over the course of the novel. Still, the direction in which the author chooses to take the story left me very disheartened. I wanted and expected so much more.