The Bookseller

By Cynthia Swanson

(HarperCollins, $25.99, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Debut novelist Cynthia Swanson is both a writer and a designer who workis in the  mid-century modern style. Her short stories have appeared in such journals as 13th Moon, Kalliope, and Sojourner. Like her protagonist in The Bookseller, Kitty/Katharyn, Swanson lives in Denver.

What is this book about?

If you read my Sept. 8 blog entry on Thomas Pierce – and of course you did! – you’ll recall that one of his short stories involves a woman who lives a double life: with a real-world boyfriend by day and with a totally imaginary dream-world husband by night. Cynthia Swanson’s debut novel plays with the same idea.  Her heroine, Kitty Miller, 38, is living in Denver in 1962, happily running a bookstore with her pal Frieda and enjoying single life, but occasionally regretting that things never worked out with a doctor named Kevin or Lars, the guy who responded to her personal ad but never showed up for their date. Then Kitty begins a series of unusual adventures, in which she is now Katharyn Andersson in 1963 Denver, ecstatically married to a man named Lars, mother of three wonderful kids, living in a dream house: in fact living an actual dream life, as this parallel existence only happens when she is asleep each night. It’s the life she has always dreamed of, but can she – should she?—make it her real life?

Why you’ll like it:

Who has not experienced one of those startlingly true-to-life dreams in which hopes become what seems like reality – until you wake up. What if it were possible to turn that nighttime fantasy into daytime reality?  That’s an intriguing premise for a novel, and Swanson takes this clever idea and runs with it.  This is a romantic novel with an unusual what-if quality; sure to engage readers who have ever wondered what life would be like if they had embarked on the road not taken and what it would cost to finally take that path.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “In 1962, Kitty wakes in Katharyn’s bed next to Katharyn’s husband, Lars. Down the hall are Katharyn’s children: Missy, Mitch, and Michael. In the mirror, Katharyn’s reflection looks exactly like Kitty’s, and Kitty is able to recall specific memories and behaviors of Katharyn’s with disturbing accuracy. But Kitty and Katharyn are not the same—Katharyn is just the woman Kitty becomes in her dreams. In reality, Kitty is single, childless, and owns a floundering bookstore with her best friend, Frieda. She has pursuits and interests that Katharyn’s life has no room for. Initially believing that Katharyn is a figment of her imagination, a pleasant dream showing what married life could have been like, Kitty identifies the one moment that prevented her life from becoming Katharyn’s. Kitty’s uncertainty about which woman’s reality is real consumes her. Swanson masterfully crafts both Kitty’s and Katharyn’s worlds, leaving open the question of which of them is real until the final pages. Swanson’s evocative novel freshly considers the timeless question, “What if?”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “With her freshly painted sunny yellow bedroom in 1962 Denver, Kitty Miller leads a content if solitary life. Running a bookshop with her best friend, Frieda, is a welcome break from teaching school. Everything about Kitty’s life seems benignly commonplace until she begins waking up in another bedroom, in another life: a life in which she is another version of herself. She wakes up as Katharyn Andersson in 1963 Denver, married to Lars, a man who had answered a personal ad 1962 Kitty Miller had placed—but 1962 Lars never showed up for their date. Katharyn and Lars have three children and move in a sphere Kitty doesn’t know about. As Kitty investigates the two worlds of Katharyn and Kitty, she sees parallels and choices, trade-offs and sacrifices. VERDICT This is a stunner of a debut novel, astonishingly tight and fast paced. The 1960s tone is elegant and even, and Kitty/Katharyn’s journey is intriguing, redolent with issues of family, independence, friendship, and free will. This will especially resonate with fans of the movie Sliding Doors and the authors Anna Quindlen and Anita Shreve.”

USA Today says: “. . . In what seems to be her “real” life, Kitty is fairly content. She and Frieda agree that as unmarried women, they have “an element of freedom and quirkiness that other women our age do not have.” They have no desire to have children and have all but given up pursuing romantic relationships.

But as Kitty experiences more of her strange dreams, she realizes that Lars is a familiar figure from her waking life. “I feel as if I have been kissing him daily for years,” she says. She recalls that eight years earlier, a man named Lars responded to a personal ad she placed in the local newspaper. They bonded over the telephone, and he seemed eager to meet her — but he failed to show up for their date and she never heard from him again.

To make sense of her increasingly vivid dream life, Kitty digs into newspaper archives, doing research to learn what happened to Lars, her almost-date, and to figure out why they are married in her dreams. Each night, she can’t wait to fall asleep to find out what happens next. (Among other things, she discovers that she’s a decent mother and good at tennis.) By day, though, the “nighttime visions,” as she calls them, begin to torment her: “They are confusing and pathetic,” she says, “and they do me no good whatsoever.”

Of course, as the novel progresses, Kitty’s two lives merge, until one subsumes the other. Both options present her with sacrifices and traumas that she must come to terms with. . . .”

When is it available?

The Bookseller is in the collections of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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