Susan Coll knows books. Not only did she write the novels “The Stager,” “Acceptance” and “Beach Week,” but she also has spent years working in an independent bookstore. (For Washington, D.C., readers, it’s Politics and Prose.) Her new novel, “Bookish People,” makes witty use of her experience. Set almost entirely inside an unnamed bookstore, the novel offers an insightful and entertaining look behind the shelves and into the lives of the people who stock them.
At the center of the story is Sophie Bernstein. She has owned the store in D.C. for 20 years, but she’s growing tired of it: “She is even starting to become hostile to the books.” She’s also grieving the loss of her imperfect husband and questioning her seemingly aimless son, who aspires to be a yoga instructor.
The book takes place after the 2017 Charlottesville car attack, which killed one person and injured dozens of others — including one of the novel’s characters — and Sophie lives in fear of a recurrence. Her bookstore has become a fortress against her sense that “the world is in flames,” and when the novel opens, she is plotting her escape from the madness by burrowing deeper into the store, in a room that is revealed by pushing a button hidden behind Graham Greene novels, revealing “350 square feet of windowless, dusty solitude.”
Once we get a look at the store, however, it’s a wonder why Sophie thinks that hiding there is remotely possible, let alone wise. Her longtime manager, Jamal, “her rock” for more than a decade, is leaving for law school, and the other employees are mostly searching millennials like Noah, whom the store transformed “from a preppy Princeton graduate” to “a skinny, bookish hipster with a fashion style more longshoreman than Ivy Club.” Aside from 23-year-old Clemi who runs events and “reminds Sophie of herself at that age … intense and serious and fiercely literary,” everyone else seems to treat the business of bookselling as a platform-building side hustle, and the store appears to be on the brink of catastrophe at all times.
Clemi’s hope for true connection emerges in the unlikely form of a renowned poet named Raymond Chaucer. Chaucer blasts into the novel on a bender and a dwindling book tour, arguing cluelessly against widespread comparisons between himself and Sylvia Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Like Hughes, Chaucer’s wife has died by suicide under the cloud of his many infidelities and a rumor that years ago he fathered a child he left behind.
Clemi is convinced she is Chaucer’s daughter because her intimidating mother is his literary agent and the two have always been uncomfortably close. Every other bookstore has canceled Chaucer’s appearances because of threats of angry protests, but Clemi is intent on holding his event at Sophie’s store in the hope of learning the truth about her parentage.
“Bookish People” moves masterfully toward the crescendo of Chaucer’s appearance in the store, bringing disparate and often farcical motifs into harmony: a vacuum cleaner called the Querk III that has eaten Sophie’s keys; daily emails from the store manager with meme-y doodle jokes that echo other canine twists in the plot; a fired employee whose predictions of the future are eerily accurate; the sometimes fraught relationship between writers and booksellers. The three narrators — Sophie, Clemi and Chaucer — are each hungry to be seen and accepted as the messy people they are during this hectic summer week. Bonus: So many book titles are woven into the novel that it offers a top-notch recommended reading list.
Coll’s novel captures the fragmented overload of modern life so successfully that this reader, at least, had to set it aside a few times just to let the rising tide of sympathetic anxiety die down before picking it back up again to find out how it would all turn out for these complicated and compelling characters. I couldn’t help but hope that the ending would somehow bail everyone out, but the best endings resist expectations, and the expansive note on which “Bookish People” ends isn’t tidy, but it’s as satisfying as a trip to your local indie bookstore.
Kerri Maher is the author of the novels “The Kennedy Debutante,” “The Girl in White Gloves: A Novel of Grace Kelly,” and “The Paris Bookseller.”
At 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 6, Susan Coll will be in conversation with Angie Kim at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC.
By Susan Coll
Harper Muse. 336 pp. Paperback, $17.99
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