“Writers & Lovers: A Novel” by Lily King; Grove Press, New York, 2020; 256 pages, hardcover, $27.

 My novel-writing neighbor in Troy, Jennifer Wixson, a few years ago described her books as “chick lit.” I knew the phrase, but not what it meant, exactly. It sounded vaguely disparaging, but Jennifer used it cheerfully and matter-of-factly. Her books that I’d read did not seem like fluff. Chalk one up to the courage to do what you do without qualm, I thought. But what was she talking about?

If I read the literati right, “chick lit” as a description of a pop genre has faded recently. But the novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld, in a nice edgy little essay on LitHub (a few years ago), defined it as a “sub-genre of ‘women’s fiction’ that sprang to life in the mid ’90s with Helen Fielding’s ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ and Sophie Kinsella’s ‘Diary of a Shopaholic’ and which tended to concern itself with plucky and sometimes hapless under-40 urban white female heroines in search of love.”

Well, what do you know. Welcome to Lily King’s newest book.

It’s 1997. Thirty-one-year-old Casey Peabody lives in an apartment her gay brother arranged for her in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she has been pluckily writing a novel, or trying to, for some years. She is a waitress in an upper-middle-scale restaurant near the Charles River, and is apparently pretty good at it, although her bosses don’t particularly think so and view her as, well, hapless. She has a few comradely friends among the wait and kitchen staff as well as in the local literary scene, which is of course dominated by Harvard connections. None of the friends view her as hapless, exactly, but they do think of her as lonely and in need of love. So does she.

The lovers we meet predictably torture her, if mostly unintentionally, through their oblivious self-centeredness. The sexual chemistry is great but the interpersonal connectivity dismal with some of them, and vice versa with others. Embittering Casey’s chronic loneliness is the recent unexpected death of her mother, leaving her confused and grieving and unable to work her way out of it. Her father shows up in the restaurant at one point with the specific goal of harassing her, and this reveals the gist of her relationship with him; she was a teenage golf prodigy whom he was grooming for the pro circuit until she quit playing altogether, prompted by sordid reasons involving him. The scene with the father makes her seem more hapless than ever.

Still, you kind of like her. She’s funny and very well-read — the book is stuffed with mentions and allusions to all kinds of literary figures from Jane Austen, George Eliot, Proust, Yeats, Somerset Maugham and Gunter Grass to John Updike and William Faulkner, whose suicidal character, Quentin Compson, Casey identifies with, at a couple of points alarmingly. And you kind of admire her plucky determination to finish writing this novel of largely unspecified content, which will be a feeling very familiar to readers who’ve wallowed in these literary scenes. There are a lot of people valiantly, lonesomely laboring over novels that you know will never be published except by mistake or by fluke.

The best thing about “Writers & Lovers” is that it’s very funny, almost from start to finish. Casey’s loneliness, while the main source of tension in the book, is also fertile soil for her and the narrator’s verbal and dramatic wit. The book makes you feel good pretty much throughout, especially at the end. And maybe overall, women are more likely to have an inherently better bead on Casey’s plights than are most men. “Writers & Lovers” appears to be an example of chick lit at just about its best, at least as Lucinda Rosenfeld describes it.

Lily King lives in Portland. Her novels are perennial best-sellers, including “The English Teacher” and “Father of the Rain,” which won Maine Literary Awards for fiction. “Writers & Lovers” is available in book stores and online.

Jennifer Wixson’s Sovereign Series novels are available through her website.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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