The Messy Lives of Book People by Phaedra Patrick is, yes, one of those books that appeals to readers by using a title and premise that are them, relatable. “Book people” is in the title. And it’s about, well, book people. Liv Green is about to be an empty nester. She married and had kids young, never having gone to university, and she has hidden her aspirations of becoming a writer from every single person in her life the whole time she was raising kids and working as a house cleaner. Three years after she gets a cleaning job working for her absolute favorite author, Essie Starling suddenly dies, leaving Liv and the lawyer as the only two people who know she’s died. And Essie has left some strange requests: that they keep it a secret and oh, that Liv finish her final book, which is a complete disaster. But keeping the secret—and writing—are far more difficult than Liv realized. She was sick of being treated like crap, but as she steps into her dreams, things just seem to get worse and worse. And will figuring out who the love of Essie’s life is–and the reason she became a recluse–help Liv write the perfect, romantic ending Essie’s fans deserve?
I don’t recall how this book made it on to my TBR. It was one that was not on a Best Books list, but rather that I squeezed onto my rolling wish list. That means it was either a strong recommendation or that I came across it in some organic way (like wandering a bookstore or doing research) and was like, “I would really like to read that.” Which means, ultimately, that what I said at the start was true for me: it got me because it was about me and all the stuff I like: books, writing, the writing world, bookstores, book museums, etc. So I can’t be super upset that this is not the best book I’ve ever read; I don’t think anyone out there is claiming that it is. With three-point-something stars on Goodreads, it definitely has fans, but it also has quite a few people who were disappointed “book people.”
Phaedra Patrick is good at coming up with great titles and with great ideas for books—I will definitely give her that. Her other titles are The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Rise & Shine Benedict Stone, The Library of Lost and Found, and The Secrets of Love Story Bridge. Honestly, I want to go out and purchase all four, just based on the titles. They are magical titles with so much promise. But I am going to resist the urge. Why (besides my behemoth of a TBR)? Because Book People ultimately didn’t deliver for me and I therefore don’t trust that the other ones would, either.
Saying Book People “didn’t deliver” might be a tad simplistic. Let’s talk about it. What went wrong?
- While I actually appreciate the uniformity of covers for Book People, I was a little mystified that they did not do a translation from British English to American English for sale in the US. I am charmed by everything British and sometimes search out original copies of books, but Book People made me realize that a translation is not a bad idea. Perhaps it was all the modern slang? I don’t know. But translating in my head did slow me down and it took me like half the book to understand that “working away” did not mean hurriedly working (as I would use it). It meant she was working out of office/home, more specifically that she was working out of office for an extended time. That’s just one example, but I’m not sure why this was done this way, and it did cause some confusion.
- It starts out rocky. Either it gets better as it goes, or I just got used to it or got into the story. But what I mean is that the writing itself is rocky, which is ironic given that it’s a book about writing and writers. On one level, there are missing words and punctuation every now and again. But much more frequently, the writing is just not good. I found myself editing the book when I happened to have a pen handy, removing words, changing words, and slashing through phrases that didn’t work. For example, “The camaraderie of her coworkers almost made up for the horrible things she found in the bins, like holey socks, moldy bread and worse” (p30). I’m sorry. What would you expect to find in a trash can? And nothing worse than holey socks and moldy bread? And what was she doing, taking it out with her teeth?
- And if me flash-editing a book about writing and writers isn’t ironic enough, the excerpts from fictional books and letters and notes and things contained in the book were really bad. I mean, I am tempted to think they were bad on purpose—to be funny and make a point that the series’ fame was based more on relating to readers than any amazing talent in linguistics—but I’ve seen this mistake so many times before I just wanted to X all of them out and re-write them. Or throw the book. The passages that mean something to the main character, too: they were all so cheesy.
- I knew what was coming. I mean, there is some predictability that comes with writing a happy ending for the masses, but I did see the big twist long before I was probably supposed to. On the other hand, there was something I thought might be true that wasn’t and that was better than what was in my head.
- While I understand the set-up of the book as from Liv’s POV and during the time between the death and the deadline, it did cause some confusion for me, repeatedly. The reader uncovers the truth in tiny, random pieces with Liv. In the end, the pieces come together, but there were many pieces I didn’t understand until much later. Consequently, the different men in Essie’s life and the timeline of her life are really fuzzy for a long time, making some of the big moments not as poignant as they were meant to be.
- And on that note, I actually found many of the characters to be fuzzy. Liv was well-developed, I thought, though I had a hard time picturing her, especially at the age she was supposed to be. Most everyone else stayed a little oblique to me, further mixing me up in knowing the difference between, say, Randall and Johnny, and when each one was a part of Essie’s life (and what that meant for the big dates that become so key to the story). Perhaps what I was missing was more physical description? I don’t really think so. Perhaps if I had been clearer on what and who would be important to understand and retain? Like a nudge from the author?
For all that, I read the book in a few days and there are reasons I enjoyed doing so, especially at the time that I did. I happened to have put “THE END” on the first draft of a novel yesterday, and it was fun to be reading a book that dealt with the trials and tribulations—as well as the joys—of writing a book. Of course, being handed a deal like Liv’s is a pipe dream, but having her continue to struggle with things like finances and relationships made so much sense. I mean, this is a more realistic portrayal of the writing life than most of the books I’ve read about it, largely because of the life lessons Liv learns by the end. I am going through similar struggles because writing is hard and there are many potholes on the road to a career in it. Though I think Patrick might have overwrote Liv’s stress, I get it. Also, there was something very baring about this novel. It was like I could see the skeleton of the story (Essie’s word) and the process. This might have been because I was reading about those things. It might have been the style. Either way, it was interesting to me to be thinking about the structure and process as I was reading a book and I did plenty of thinking about my own process in general and specifically for the book I just finished writing and the one I just started revising.
And like The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Patrick references a ton of books that I was easily able to translate into a book club reading list for you.
BOOK CLUB READS BASED ON BOOKS AND AUTHORS MENTIONED IN THE MESSY LIVES OF BOOK PEOPLE:
- Rapunzel (read Rapunzel, Amy Ehrlich and Puffin’s Classics Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Hans and Wilhelm Grimm)
- “Paperback Writer,” the Beatles (song lyrics)
- Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
- Dairy of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney (#1)
- Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling
- On Writing, Stephen King
- Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
- Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
- James Patterson (read Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life)
- Stieg Larsson (read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
- Robert Ludlum (read The Bourne Identity, #1)
- Agatha Christie (read And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, or Death on the Nile)
- William Shakespeare (read Hamlet and possibly Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, or King Lear)
- Tennessee Williams (read The Glass Menagerie)
- Evelyn Waugh (read Brideshead Revisited or maybe Scoop)
- Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
- J. R. R. Tolkein (read The Lord of the Rings trilogy with The Hobbit)
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (read The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Complete Sherlock Holmes)
- Jojo Moyes (read Me Before You)
- Marian Keyes (read Rachel’s Holiday)
- Lord Byron (read Don Juan)
- Charles Dickens (read Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Hard Times, or A Christmas Carol)
- Neil Gaiman (read American Gods or Coraline, or possibly The Graveyard Book or Neverwhere)
- Khaled Hosseini (read The Kite Runner)
- Emily Bronte (read Wuthering Heights)
- Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle
- The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
- Maeve Binchy (read Circle of Friends)
- Rosamunde Pilcher (read The Shell Seekers)
- Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
- Nancy Drew series, Carolyn Keene (read The Secret of the Old Clock)
- Heartburn, Nora Ephron
“She’d once read the success rate of a writer getting a literary agent was six thousand to one” (p83).
“’Essie’s finding writing really tough right now.’ / ‘If it was that easy, everyone would do it’ (p83).
“She’d always imagined becoming a writer was like an invisible path stretching out in front of her, waiting for her to start her journey. It looked like she had to stamp on nettles and jump over potholes to walk along it” (p84).
“There are a few moments in life when the earth seems to stop spinning, and you have a split second to decide to walk away or take a leap into the unknown” (p126).
“She had never thought writing could be so physically and mentally draining” (p142).
“’I like this word, woo.’ He laughed again. ‘With someone like Essie, it is mostly about the mind. You have to pique her interest, challenge her or equal her’” (p181).
“You leaving is like having my right arm sawn off, and I’m going to miss you more that you’ll ever know, Liv wanted to tell him. Instead, her words came out as, ‘Have you remembered your phone and your wallet?’” (p274).
“Liv thought of how it was an age when you could study and live alone, travel wherever you wanted in the world, even have your own children, but there was still so much to learn, and so many mistakes to make” (p275).
“Liv supposed it was a serious occasion, and she felt stiff, too. Finishing the manuscript had been like giving birth. It brought back memories of delivering Mack and Johnny, after her adrenaline rush faded and she wanted to crawl into a cave to hibernate” (p282).
“’I began to drink and have never known if alcohol is my salvation, or my punishment’” (p300).
“’I know better than anyone that health, family and happiness are things money can’t buy’” (p301).