Haunting Book: The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson

bookseller-coverLike A Murder in Time, The Bookseller haunted me because of how the novel deals with time and reality, though The Bookseller is not a time travel story. In this debut novel by Cynthia Swanson, the protagonist, Kitty Miller, owns an independent bookstore in the early 1960s, together with her friend Frieda. Kitty lives alone with her cat, but at night she dreams of another life, a life set in a slightly different time. In her dream world, she is married to a wonderful husband named Lars, and she is the mother of triplets, two of whom are normal children, and the third is autistic. In that dream life, she is Katharyn Andersson.

Through the course of the novel, Kitty also comes to doubt which world is real. The story becomes like the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, with alternate views of reality. Is it autumn in 1962 or spring in 1963? Is she Kitty, the bookseller? Or is she Katharyn, wife to Lars and mother of three children? Which does she want to be? Can she choose?

SPOILER ALERT—DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS

Kitty likes the freedom of her solitary life as a bookseller, but she finds herself more and more drawn to her dream world, hoping each night to find her way back. She falls in love with blue-eyed Lars and with their children, though she has trouble understanding and dealing with her autistic son. She realizes that she knew Lars in her life as “Kitty” several years earlier, and that the life she dreams of might have been hers, had one conversation been different.

Interwoven with this alternate reality story is the story of women in the 1960s, at the cusp of cultural change from being housewives to having paid careers. Does Kitty want her bookstore—which is hers, though it is failing because of the new shopping center in town—or does she want Katharyn’s Jackie-Kennedy-era life of a housewife dependent on her husband, while raising kids and attending cocktail parties?

Over time, Kitty doubts the choices she’s made in life and comes to wish that her dream world were real. In fact, she starts to think it is real. However, Katharyn’s world is not perfect, and Kitty learns that her parents—alive in her bookseller’s life—died in a plane crash in her fantasy. She also learns that her alter-ego Katharyn has had a falling out with Frieda, the friend with whom Kitty owns the bookstore in the real world.

As Swanson says in The Bookseller, “There is no such thing as a perfect life.” We all discover this for ourselves in our own lives, but part of the reason I read fiction is to watch the characters discover the pros and cons of their choices. In this case, the choice was between two different lives—each with its own rewards and problems. Friendship and career, or family and tragedy—which would you choose?

I won’t tell you where Kitty/Katharyn ended up. But I will say, I enjoyed her journey.

What books have caused you to think about life choices you have made?

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