The Bookstore is the debut novel from Deborah Meyler. In it, 23-year-old Esme Garland, an Englishwoman who is doing her PhD in Art History at Columbia University, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. When she tries to talk to her boyfriend, the handsome old-money Mitchell van Leuvin, he breaks up with her before she has a chance to tell him about the pregnancy. Alone and largely friendless, she take a job in the quirky used bookstore The Owl.
This is a really smart novel. It is written in the first person, and despite Esme’s very old-fashioned name (she has been called after her great-grandmother), her voice is modern, young and interesting. She tells her story through a framework of modern artists and literary references which are very evocative of colours, feelings and time. Meyler’s writing style reminded me a little bit of Lily Brett without the tragedy – an articulate and knowledgable woman wandering around the streets of a much-loved New York, with lightning quick thoughts and ideas darting everywhere inside a fertile intelligence and imagination but with very little showing on the outside. As a postgraduate student writing a thesis myself, I loved how Esme talked about her PhD – the way that studying was an omnipresent task and the library a constant destination but also how other non-research parts of life become drawn into the PhD process – visiting galleries, attending lectures on topics not your own. The mindset of writing a thesis and being a graduate student is perfectly captured in this book.
That said, I did feel the novel lost its way in its final section. Because the premise of the book is so slight, not a lot really happens – and certainly nothing unexpected. The charm of the book is Esme’s voice and the loving characterisations of New York and the people she spends time with. I just didn’t buy that someone who had such intelligence and perception would be involved for such a long time with a rotter like Mitchell. She’s just too smart to miss the clues to his character that are provided along the way!
Those quibbles aside, this is a charming novel that I would not hesitate to recommend. I will definitely keep an eye out for future work from this very promising novelist. 3.5 stars.