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Book Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson (3/5)

12 May

This book got a lot of hype when it first came out. I thought it was going to be a book about books, bookstores, and booksellers so I was happy to add it to my TBR. Thanks to triathlon training, this is the time of year when I fly through audiobooks and it finally had found its way to the top of the list.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

Summary from Goodreads:

Denver, 1962: Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She loves the bookshop she runs with her best friend, Frieda, and enjoys complete control over her day-to-day existence. She can come and go as she pleases, answering to no one. There was a man once, a doctor named Kevin, but it didn’t quite work out the way Kitty had hoped.

Then the dreams begin.

Denver, 1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They have beautiful children, an elegant home, and good friends. It’s everything Kitty Miller once believed she wanted—but it only exists when she sleeps.

Convinced that these dreams are simply due to her overactive imagination, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. But with each visit, the more irresistibly real Katharyn’s life becomes. Can she choose which life she wants? If so, what is the cost of staying Kitty, or becoming Katharyn?

As the lines between her worlds begin to blur, Kitty must figure out what is real and what is imagined. And how do we know where that boundary lies in our own lives?

I had two major problems with this book. The first is not a spoiler. With a book titled The Bookseller, I thought Kitty’s job would be more integral to the plot than it was. Honestly, Kitty could have owned any business and the story wouldn’t have been affected at all. This wasn’t a ‘book about books’ like I’d hoped. It was a book about a woman who happened to sell books for a living. That left me pretty disappointed. The second issue is a spoiler so skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid that. I didn’t feel like there was a strong enough event to make Kitty realize her life with Lars was her real life. I’m not sure I even believe it. It seemed like she had one dream and suddenly believed something she had been opposed to for months. It didn’t make sense to me and made me angry with the book right at the end. It was really frustrating.

Kitty and Katharyn were believable in the ways they were alike and in how they were different. The lives they had both built made sense based on when their lives differed. I liked Kitty and I related to her more. As a woman without children, it was hard to relate to Katharyn’s mother role. However, Katharyn’s sadness made her more relatable once you learned about it and I started to like her more and more as she moved out of the ‘perfect housewife’ role and became more real.

Freida is my favorite character. I like how direct she is and how businesslike. She would make a great entrepreneur and I’m glad she ends up doing that in both lives. I like how she pushes Kitty to be brave when things are rough. I like how she’s a real friend and doesn’t get mad when Kitty misses work. I also liked her in Katharyn’s world and how she was strong and stood up for herself. I can see why Kitty wanted to keep her close as a friend.

I think we’ve all wondered what single decisions might have changed our lives forever. It’s easy to dream and fantasize about it so it’s fun to step into Kitty’s alternative universe and explore it with her. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I had chosen a different school or stayed at a job that I left. There are a million ways our lives could end up differently than they are right now and this book was a fun way to explore that.

Cynthia Swanson
Image via HarperCollins Publishers

I enjoyed learning the reality of Katharyn’s life. Learning first about Michael and then about her parents and, finally, Freida made her very real to me and seem a lot less like a dream. It made you think about those who you may think have a perfect life and what it is that they are hiding behind smiles and pressed clothes. Most people are hiding something. Even someone whose life seems perfect probably has moments where they wish their life was very different. We might not see it, but it’s there.

The ending was a let down for me. This is a spoiler again, so skip to the next paragraph to avoid it. Katharyn’s realization seemed to come out of nowhere for me. I didn’t feel the dream she had that lead her to her decision was enough to sway her decisions. I understood her uncertainty and confusion until that point, but I lost her then and didn’t get why she felt compelled to settle her mind the way she did. I’d hoped she’d have to make a more conscious decision between her lives and it didn’t end up with that at all. I’m not sure it’s really possible to make a decision between the two, but I think a purposeful decision and evaluation of the two worlds would have been a more satisfying ending. I left thinking she had created Kitty to deal with the trauma of losing her parents and somehow realized that but I still don’t get how.

The audiobook was narrated by Kathe Mazur. I liked her narration. I was a bit annoyed by the way she pronounced Katharyn’s name but I didn’t realize there was an ‘a’ where there’s normally an ‘e’ and that was probably why she said it that way. The voices she gave to Lars and his sister were great; containing the faint traces of their Sweedish accent but accepting that they’d been in America long enough to lose most of it. I liked her portrayal of surprise and confusion that Kittie felt, too.

We all wonder how our lives could have worked out differently. Saying yes to something you turned down or changing the day of a trip or lingering just a second longer. Swanson portrays the effects of these little decisions well. I liked how many times she forced the reader to think about the decisions that change our lives and how there’s no best life or worst life. Everything is beautiful and flawed and we’re lucky to live through it all.

Writer’s Takeaway: It felt to me like a big part of this book hinged on Katharyn making a decision about which life was ‘real’ and which she wanted to live in. It was an interesting concept and I have my own theory about her decision, but it was almost too big of a question. Either way, she made both the right and wrong choice, there was no easy way to end it. And I didn’t follow her thoughts for the decision she made so I ended up frustrated. Maybe there are questions too big for a book to answer.

The book was entertaining but ultimately a letdown for me because of the ending. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Book Review: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson | Sass Hamiton
Write On, Wednesday: Cynthia Swanson on Identity, Grief, Motherhood, and So Much More From The Bookseller | Leslie A. Lindsay