The mind has ingenious mechanisms to deal with severe psychological trauma. One way is through hallucinatory dreams, as diabolically depicted in The Bookseller (March 2015) by Cynthia Swanson.
In her literary debut, Swanson’s thirty-eight-year-old protagonist lives two parallel lives; one in vivid dreams, the other in stark reality. In late 1962, she is Kitty Miller, the co-owner of a small, independent bookstore. Single, her only prospect for married life is a written response to her personal ad placed in the local newspaper. She arranges to meet him for coffee, but when he fails to show up, she retreats back into her spinster world, reading long into lonely nights, snuggled up with her cat. In early 1963, she is Katharyn Miller Andersson, the wife of a successful architect and the loving mother of six-year-old triplets. Her husband just happens to be Lars, who jilted her in her other life.
Which life is real? Which is imaginary? Which one does Kitty/Katharyn dream up? In which one will she “decide” she belongs?
Set in Denver with the Kennedy era, the Vietnam War, and the surge of suburban sprawl as its multi-layered backdrop, this historical novel aka thriller romance marries the emergence of the women’s rights movement with one’s individual quest for a fulfilled life Could one, should one be a successful businesswoman and/or an empowered wife and mother? Could, would Kitty/Katharyn wake up and overcome her own psychological traumas to be both?
With its clever, original plotline and “chatty Cathy” first-person epistolary writing style, Swanson’s novel has a bizarre Twilight Zone feeling to it. Its themes encapsulate the “what if?” butterfly effect – one small act sparks major life changes – as well as the quest for love and fulfillment and plotlines of books popular in Kitty/Katharyn’s lives and times. An avid reader – after all, she is a bookseller – our trepid heroine sees parallels between her own lives and the plotlines of bestsellers and classics; a much used, trite literary conceit that this author employs with a modicum of success. A few choices are forced, but this flaw is easily overlooked in light of Swanson’s first attempt at long fiction.
Kitty/Katharyn’s two plot life lines are so intricately intertwined and so masterfully written, it is difficult to differentiate reality from imagined plot points…that Kitty/Katharyn is, as she claims, even dreaming. And while eerily straightforward in its premise, this psychological thriller’s outcome is not quite all that straightforward. The ending, seemingly a resolution of Kitty/Katharyn’s problems, leaves a faint hint that maybe, just maybe, her chosen life is really not the real – or right—one.
In a word, this novel, while a captivating read, is unsettling. It is to be read at bedtime only by the unsusceptible reader, lest what dreams may come truly disturb one’s mind.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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