The Bookseller
Cynthia Swanson
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The Bookseller
Cynthia Swanson
352 pages
February 2015
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Deborah Straw's take on The Bookseller.

Set in 1962, Swanson’s delicate domestic drama starts with Kitty Miller waking from a dreamscape in which she sees a blue-eyed man removing his warm hand from her shoulder. He calls her Katharyn; his name is Lars Andersson, and he has a strong woodsy soapy scent. Her suburban life in Denver is good, even though there seems to be small fissures in her recollections of her time in Lars’s modern home on Springfield Street. Then Kitty closes her eyes and her dream shifts to a house more modern than the 1920s-era duplex that she rents on her own in the neighborhood of Platt Park. Here she only has Aslan, her elderly cat, for a companion along with occasional connection to her young neighbor, Greg, a troubled student whom Kitty decides to teach how to read.

Who knows who this Katharyn is? Kitty doesn’t have children and is not a mother, though she once thought she’d marry Kevin, a doctor who returned from the war intact, but never actually “popped the question” to her. From a dream world, to the wasted years, to Kevin’s callous rejection, to handsome Lars who stares at Katharyn with such intense admiration, Kitty once again wakes up from what must have been a deep, deep sleep. Kitty has to smile at her ridiculous imagination and at her crazy mind, which lately seems to be coming up with an entire alternative life for herself.

In the real world, Kitty is a single working woman who co-owns a small bookstore with her loyal best friend, Frieda Green. Both Kitty and Frieda are approaching middle-aged spinsterhood but are proud of their accomplishments, though the bookstore has recently begun to flounder. It's not surprising, then, that Kitty is drawn to some quasi-fantasy world of her own making. She thinks about of “what might have been” as she ponders her recollections of this man called Lars. Dating back some eight years to 1954, when marriage was still on her mind, Kitty recalls the personal ad section in the Denver Post where Lars responded in kind.

This is a time where the roles for women are changing. Like-minded women like Kitty and Frieda are beginning to flourish professionally. Still, Kitty is imbued with a fresh sense of melancholy as she wonders at the abrupt change: how she has gradually shifted from hopeful, “starry-eyed young woman to permanent old maid.” From a dream inside a dream to an entire life that never happened, Kitty descends into the happily married world of Katharyn, this “lovely, imaginary, floating world that is bathed not just in water but in happiness.” Here, in the other green bathroom in Denver, in the house that doesn’t exist--the one she shares with the people who are not real--Kitty begins to look for the missing clues.

In her softly lyrical style, Swanson lets us experience every part of Kitty/Katharyn’s emotional journey, her most intimate pain, sadness, and frustration at not quite understanding the meaning behind these dreams, and her decision to keep the bookshop intact for the sake of her friendship with Frieda. The past recollections of Lars--and the implications of their one and only phone call--adds yet another sheen of mystery and uncertainty to an already puzzling, perplexing landscape.

Katharyn and her life with Lars are the mystery at the heart of the book. Theirs is sometimes an unreadable presence, and Katharyn’s awkward transformation into would-be mother of three is most touching. In Katharyn’s dreamscape, her marriage is successful, two of her children are well-adjusted, and her role as wife and mother is surprisingly fulfilling. Luckily, Swanson swerves to avoid the obvious sentimentality by channeling all of Katharyn’s emotions back to Kitty, who fortunately has little time for pity-soaked memories of romantic heartbreak.

So much of the narrative is retrospective or interior that there's not much urgency to the unfolding events, however highly colored. There's also a rhetorical whimsy reminiscent of a fantasy tale, which occasionally leaves Kitty threatening to float free of our trust in her: “A small part of me, has started to wonder what is true and what is made up; it’s beginning to seem impossible that something as real as the world I share with Lars and the children could actually be imaginary.” Meanwhile, gutsy, chain-smoking Frieda holds close to her heart the once youthful hopes she cultivated with Kitty along with painful realization that the bookstore as they’re running it just cannot survive in a world of supermarkets and rapidly encroaching strip malls.

Although it sounds confusing in context, the novel clearly presents Kitty/Katharyn’s destinies as two separate entities that become one singular road. Signifying how a singular event can sometimes permanently alter our life forever, Kitty’s digressive, meandering voice circles around her own particular loves and losses, all knitted together with Swanson’s accomplished combination of tenderness and control.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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