THE WASHINGTON POST – Susan Coll knows books. Not only did she write the novels The Stager, Acceptance and Beach Week, but she also has spent years working in an independent bookstore.
Her new novel, Bookish People, makes witty use of her experience. Set almost entirely inside an unnamed bookstore, the novel offers an insightful and entertaining look behind the shelves and into the lives of the people who stock them.
At the centre of the story is Sophie Bernstein. She has owned the store in DC for 20 years, but she’s growing tired of it: “She is even starting to become hostile to the books.” She’s also grieving the loss of her imperfect husband and questioning her seemingly aimless son, who aspires to be a yoga instructor.
The book takes place after the 2017 Charlottesville car attack, which killed one person and injured dozens of others – including one of the novel’s characters – and Sophie lives in fear of a recurrence.
Her bookstore has become a fortress against her sense that “the world is in flames,” and when the novel opens, she is plotting her escape from the madness by burrowing deeper into the store, in a room that is revealed by pushing a button hidden behind Graham Greene novels, revealing “350 square feet of windowless, dusty solitude.”
Once we get a look at the store, however, it’s a wonder why Sophie thinks that hiding there is remotely possible, let alone wise.
Her longtime manager, Jamal, “her rock” for more than a decade, is leaving for law school, and the other employees are mostly searching millennials like Noah, whom the store transformed “from a preppy Princeton graduate” to “a skinny, bookish hipster with a fashion style more longshoreman than Ivy Club.” Aside from 23-year-old Clemi who runs events and “reminds Sophie of herself at that age… intense and serious and fiercely literary,” everyone else seems to treat the business of bookselling as a platform-building side hustle, and the store appears to be on the brink of catastrophe at all times.
Bookish People moves masterfully toward the crescendo of Chaucer’s appearance in the store, bringing disparate and often farcical motifs into harmony: a vacuum cleaner called the Querk III that has eaten Sophie’s keys; daily emails from the store manager with meme-y doodle jokes that echo other canine twists in the plot; a fired employee whose predictions of the future are eerily accurate; the sometimes fraught relationship between writers and booksellers.