A fun part of running a book review website is publishing two reviews of the same book. I was far more ambivalent about The Bookseller when first read and reviewed for the Clayton Pioneer back in January 2017, than Ann Ronald whose review of The Bookseller I posted in June of this year.
The Bookseller is Cynthia Swanson’s Debut Novel. The story is set in the early 1960s. Swanson’s protagonist, the bookseller, is a single woman, in her late thirties in 1962, quite a bit older than the budding young feminists we read about today. But aside from that, I found myself giving up a great deal of the day to finish what I had started reading the night before.
Kitty Miller, a grammar school teacher has given up teaching to open a bookstore in old town Denver with her long-time best friend, Frieda Green. I’m guessing that the book’s title was chosen by the publisher and not the author. Other than the fact that Kitty co-owns and works in a bookstore, little in this complex tale hinges on bookselling.
The story begins: “This is not my bedroom. Where am I? Gasping and pulling unfamiliar bedcovers up to my chin, I strain to collect my senses. But no explanation for my whereabouts comes to mind.” In fact, Kitty, who has come to terms with her independent and somewhat eccentric single life is in for a shock when she awakens in the bedroom of a strange man who greets her warmly as his beloved wife, Katharyn. Kitty assumes she is dreaming, and to the author’s credit, the reader does, too.
Since I am not a huge fan of time-travel novels, it was perplexing that Kitty’s “dream life” or “other time” as married Katharyn is only a few months ahead of her real life as a shopkeeper. But I am new to appreciating time travel and maybe a few months is enough to qualify. Kitty the bookseller, or Katharyn as she is known to her dream family, moves between these two states of being. The Bookseller is not quite a story of two separate lives experienced by one person because the facts contained in the one life overlap and eventually spill into the other. Katharyn’s perfect dream life with perfect husband Lars is complicated by the discovery that she is also the mother of triplets, one of whom has been diagnosed as autistic, a condition only just becoming better known in the early 1960s. Katharyn’s life with its wifely and maternal responsibilities is nothing like Kitty’s independence.
But Kitty’s “real” life as a bookseller becomes increasingly more complex. With the boom of suburbia and its shopping malls, Old-town Denver, the location of the bookstore, is drained of its business vitality. Kitty and Frieda find themselves unhappily coping with a now failing enterprise so that Kitty’s escaping to her married dream life seems a perfect anecdote for her no longer perfect single life.
Eventually, both Kitty’s lives, real and otherwise (imagined?), prove to be not at all what she expected from either. The reader begins to wonder, at about the same time as Kitty, which life is the dream and which the reality.
Since 1733 when Samuel Madden wrote Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, readers have been fascinated with time travel stories. Today’s String Theory brings time travel to the brink of possibility. No spoiler here, but the power of our minds to find solutions to what seems unbearable is beautifully captured in Cynthia Swanson’s The Bookseller. – Sunny Solomon