Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review of The Bookseller

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: March 2015
Length: 352 pages
Source: TLC Book Tours

Synopsis from Publisher: A mesmerizingly powerful debut novel about the ways in which past choices can irrevocably define the present—and the bittersweet confrontation of what might have been.

1962: It may be the Swinging Sixties in New York, but in Denver it’s different: being a single gal over thirty in this city is almost bohemian. Still, thirty-eight-year-old Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She was involved, once—with a doctor named Kevin—but when things didn’t work out the way she had hoped, she decided to chart her own path. Now she dedicates herself to the bookstore she runs with her best friend, Frieda, returning home each evening to her cozy apartment. Without a husband expecting dinner, she can enjoy last-minute drinks after work with her friends; without children who need to get ready for school, she can stay up all night reading with her beloved cat, Aslan, by her side.

Then the dreams begin.

1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They live in a picture-perfect home in a suburban area of Denver, close to their circle of friends. It’s the ideal place in which to raise their children. Katharyn’s world is exactly what Kitty once believed she wanted . . . but it exists only when she sleeps.

At first, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. Even though there is no Frieda, no bookstore, no other familiar face, Kitty becomes increasingly reluctant to open her eyes and abandon Katharyn’s alluring life. But with each visit to her dreamworld, it grows more real. As the lines between the two worlds begin to blur, Kitty faces an uncertain future. What price must she pay to stay? What is the cost of letting go?

My Thoughts: In The Bookseller, a debut novel from Cynthia Swanson, a cat-owning spinster bookstore owner named Kitty Miller begins to have odd dreams that hint at an alternative life.

Kitty seems to have an enviable, although quiet, life in early 1960s Denver. She owns a small bookstore with her best friend. Though the bookstore is struggling and may need to relocate, Kitty seems satisfied with her life as a single and independent woman. Then she begins to have tantalizingly strange dreams . . . dreams in which she lives in an entirely different house, with an attractive and loving husband and adorable children. Everything in Kitty's dreams seems wonderful and trouble-free; do the dreams represent what Kitty's life might have been if she had pursued a different path? Soon Kitty finds herself seeking out the dream life, almost as a refuge from her real-life problems. But is the dream life as perfect as it appears? Which life is better . . . and which life is more real?

The Bookseller is an engaging, sometimes haunting read. I polished it off quickly, wanting to know what Kitty's strange dreams would ultimately reveal. Although I began to guess at the ending before the completion of the book, I still found the novel's resolution to be satisfying.

The "what if" scenario Swanson uses is interesting, although as other reviewers have pointed out, it has appeared in other novels, as well as movies, before. There is certainly a parallel to be found in the 1998 movie Sliding Doors. I was reminded, as well, of the novel The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, which presents two alternate outcomes for the life of the main character. Nevertheless, if The Bookseller's structure is not wholly original, I think most readers can relate to the question of how their life might have turned out differently if they had made other choices.

I'd offer a few other criticisms of The Bookseller. Although the novel hangs on Kitty and her growing realization of what is important in her life, I felt her character was underwritten and would have benefitted from further development. In addition, I could perhaps have used less detail about furniture and housing developments; there is not much historical context other than those sorts of details, which for me, didn't add much to the story.

Bottom line, The Bookseller is a quick and highly readable novel. Although I may not rank it as one of my favorite books of the year, it could prompt a great book club discussion about choices, the nature of reality, and how we perceive our own lives.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Harper Collins through TLC Book Tours. Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for this book. You can visit the other stops on the tour at the official tour site here.

About Cynthia Swanson: Cynthia Swanson is a writer and a designer of the midcentury modern style. She has published short fiction in 13th Moon, Kalliope, Sojourner, and other periodicals; her story in 13th Moon was a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and three children. The Bookseller is her first novel. Find out more about Cynthia at her website and connect with her on Facebook.