Friday, March 14, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler

This week's selection is one of those books I found about by accident through Goodreads and decided to give a chance. The premise of Deborah Meyler's The Bookstore seemed right up my alley as it involves a small used bookstore in New York City and a young graduate student on scholarship at Columbia University. And after receiving the book for Christmas, I figured it was time to take a break from my usual door stops and young adults in crazy situations.

The Situation: Esme Garland is a young British woman currently residing in New York City while pursuing her PhD in art history at Columbia. For the most part she is your typical grad student living in the Big Apple. She's attending Columbia on a scholarship and resides in a modest studio apartment on Broadway in Manhattan. She even landed and incredibly wealthy boyfriend, Mitchell, and has become good friends with her across-the-hall photographer neighbor, Stella. Being an art history major, Esme often stops by a local used bookstore called The Owl and has even become fairly friendly with the regular employees. Esme's life, while somewhat busy, is in order, and she likes it that way.

The Problem: One day she asks Mitchell to meet her because she has something important to tell him. Turns out, he has something important to tell her too. He's decided to break up with her because he doesn't think their sex life is exciting enough. Which is a shame really, since Esme was going to tell Mitchell that she is pregnant, and he is most certainly the father. Now Esme is single, in school on a scholarship, in the US on a student visa, so she can't legally get a job, and pregnant. Fortunately, she is able to get a job at The Owl, as the owner, George, agrees to pay her under the table. And even though her shifts at the store only add to the busyness of her life, the store and the relationships she makes there will be a strange sort of stabilizing and supporting force for Esme. Even the regular homeless men that come by end up being a source of comfort. There is potential for Esme to be okay. And when Mitchell decides to have a change of heart and wants Esme back, it seems things will be okay, until it becomes clear that being with Mitchell does not bring the order to her life that she desires.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day New York City, with a young British college student as the first-person narrator. At times Esme is naive, immature, foolish, desperate, needy, self-righteous, and completely blind to the obvious. But she is also incredibly smart, and sweet, and ultimately wants to help people and do the right thing, even if it is unpopular. Most of her unpopular decisions aren't even about her pregnancy, but instead are about her experiences at The Owl and its employees and its patrons. There is quite a bit of discussion regarding the plight of the modern-day bookstore, especially the used bookstore, with the ever-growing popularity of devices such as the Kindle and iPad, not to mention the ease with which people can order real books at a discounted rate off of Amazon, and with those come a guarantee that no one has taken notes already in the margins.  In the acknowledgments, Meyler admitted that the bookstore she describes here in The Bookstore does not actually look anything like the one she frequents that is currently at Broadway and 80th, Westsider Books. But I am sure every reader of this book can picture their own version of the store that they have come across in real life, either in their own home town or in their travels.

My Verdict: It is strange to come across a book that actually has some pretty fantastic writing, like really good, but the main character is such a pain in the butt that it kind of ruins the entire story. For the majority of the novel, Esme is so oblivious that I started to hope certain things would happen to her just so she would wake up and pay attention. It felt like the situation could not have been spelled out for her any clearer, but she just kept going along as if everything was fine. Also, there were certain characters and interactions that I just had a hard time believing. I couldn't understand why Esme believed that Luke, one of the employees at The Owl, didn't like her. And Stella, Esme's neighbor, just didn't seem like a fully fleshed out character. Meanwhile, other characters, like George the store owner, and DeeMo, a homeless man who makes frequent appearances, are quite well-done and incredibly likable. So in short, I have mix feelings about this one that lean toward the negative. 

Favorite Moment: Basically whenever Esme made a fool of herself, I was happy. Terrible but true. Like I said, I started to want bad things to happen her just so she would maybe get off of the path she was on.

Favorite Character: This is easily George, the owner of The Owl. He is a bit eccentric (the type who is very wary of most cleaning products), a vegetarian, and spends many hours outside of the bookstore making deals with people looking to get rid of their own personal libraries, often paying them more than he knows the books to be worth. But that only speaks to his graciousness, his patience, and his belief in the power of the written word.

Favorite Quote: "When the city rejected him he stayed anyway, with a book like this in his pocket, and this book, with all its stains and all its creases, who knows how many subways and streets it has gone through, who knows how many times Solomon has built his temple, who knows how many times Jonah has been spewed forth from the whale, who knows what pyrotechnics of imagination it has wrought, whether it was in Corso or in some mute, inglorious Milton. I think, I really think, that this book is a symbol of the city, not because it is rare and strange but because it isn't." - George talking about a Bible in the store that was supposedly carried around by Gregory Corso.

Second Favorite Quote: "No. I don't think I agree with you after all. That boy wanted to talk to me because he saw that I was reading a book, precisely because I wasn't at the door offering him a latte and an invitation to a poetry reading. He wanted to win my attention, by trying. Bookshops have got to survive because people want them, Esme. You've got to trust people to want them, not try to trick people into wanting them." - George on what a bookstore should be, particularly his bookstore. 

Recommended Reading: Since I honestly have no idea what else to recommend, I choose Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu, mostly because it has to do with famous artists and Esme is studying art history. Sacre Bleu is a very different type of novel, but still an incredibly fun one.

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