Book Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

The Bookseller follows a woman named Kitty who lives in Denver, where she runs a bookstore with her best friend, Frieda. In 1962 it’s not usual for her to be unmarried at the age of thirty-eight, but she tells herself she’s content. Having gone through a failed courtship and several dates that led nowhere, she’s come to terms with life at home with her cat.

Things aren’t as stable as she’d like them to be. The bookstore is losing business as customers flock to big shopping centers in town. She and Frieda are struggling to pay the rent, contemplating the idea of moving to a location that’ll attract more business.

In the midst of this uncertainty, Kitty begins to have strange dreams. Each night when she drifts off, she finds herself in an alternate universe where everything is different.

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Kitty’s married with children in this universe. Her husband, Lars, is a man she spoke to once in the waking world, on the phone; they never met, but in the dream they are married. They have started a family; he built a lovely house for her and the children.

In this dream universe, Kitty is wealthy and has plenty of friends. She has a closet of elegant clothing, even a maid. The world she visits in her sleep is full of contradictions to her real life; it’s like the flip side of a coin.

As the dreams become more vivid, readers are left wondering which of the two universes is actually a dream? It becomes hard to decide. Cynthia Swanson has done a good job of taking two outcomes and making both of them plausible.

The Bookseller addresses the timeless question “What if?” We’ve all wondered how our lives could be different if we made that choice differently, or took the left road instead of the right. How would the universe change if we embraced a different hobby? How would it change the future, how would it change us?

This novel drew me in with its poignant writing and powerful scenes, making me question my own life. As the story progressed and fog cleared, I marveled at Swanson’s genius: She took a concept difficult to pull off, writing each reality with grace and elegance. Both of them have their pros and cons. Neither is complete.

But life is never truly complete. This truth doesn’t escape the pages of books. The Bookseller is wonderful because it makes us ponder our own choices, compelling us to ask “What if?” the way we did when we were children.

Life might look better in an alternate universe, but we’d find ourselves missing things we don’t notice now. The Bookseller helps us appreciate what we have, not envying others’ lives or wishing away our truths.

Like Kitty does in both realities, we’ll wake up and realize these little things are gone. But they only seemed little when we took them for granted, because they will leave great voids.

The Bookseller is a beautiful piece of literary fiction, one I can rate five stars without thinking twice. Give it a try and let it change your perspective on life.

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