Lily King isn’t afraid of big emotional subjects: desire and grief, longing and love, growth and self-acceptance. But she eschews high drama for the immersive quiet of the everyday. King’s latest book, her first story collection, “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” explores some of the same territory as her beloved novel “Writers & Lovers.” Here we inhabit the worlds of authors and mothers, children and friends; we experience their lives in clear, graceful prose that swells with generous possibility. This is a book for writers and lovers, a book about storytelling itself, a book for all of us.
Writerly narrators abound. In “Creature,” 14-year-old Carol, a mother’s helper to a wealthy matriarch’s grandchildren, becomes swept up in the spell of Jane Eyre and the romantic notion of becoming a writer only to have her fantasy shattered when her employer’s married son crudely goes at her as if he “was doing some kitchen chore inside my bathing suit.” In the title story, a reticent bookstore owner falls for his employee. “He’d read about this feeling in novels, but he was sure he’d never experienced it.” Love drives him toward the closest we’ll get to a storybook ending.
Intimacy builds around a tender portrait of what constitutes a family in “When in the Dordogne,” as two college friends move into a professor’s home to care for his adolescent son following the professor’s mental health crisis. “I can look back on that time as if rereading a book I was too young for the first time around,” reflects the adult narrator on his pivotal summer of freedom and awakening, the one joyous time “all the sharp awkward fragments of my life suddenly fell into their proper slots.”
Writers often get asked how they choose their subjects. For King, the answer may not be so cut and dried. Certainly, there is thematic overlap. Alcoholism, attempted suicide and toxic men are topics King has covered. Like Casey from “Writers & Lovers,” the narrator of “Timeline” is also a writer and restaurant worker grappling with heartache and the right words, but the formal constraints of the short story yield fresh resonance. Sometimes we do things one way to unlock another. King’s aspiring novelist admits, “I knew I was going to write a lot of stupid things that made me cry before I wrote anything good.”
Only everything King writes is great. Her last story, “The Man at the Door,” is an exceptional work of magic realism. The young mother-narrator, an aspiring novelist, has one simple goal: “All she wanted was to get back to the page at her desk.” But her baby just won’t stay napping, give her the peace she needs. No sooner does that moment arrive when the doorbell rings, then a tap at the window, “growing louder and louder until she was certain a hand would shatter through before she could reach the door.” To her own surprise, she lets the stranger in. The man works for her publisher, and he proceeds to berate her about her work, offering a critique filled with misogynistic notions about fiction writing. Politeness turns quickly into something else, a confrontation that reveals the regrets and hopes of both the narrator and the intruder. When at last she gets rid of him and returns to the page that had been calling her all along, she finds an ending to her own book — and this one — that feels triumphant.
Sara Lippmann’s new story collection, “Jerks,” will be published in March.
FIVE TUESDAYS IN WINTER
By Lily King
Grove Press. 240 pp. $27
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