There are people who have no time for books. Nina had met those people; usually they came into the bookstore to ask for directions and would then look about confusedly when they realized they were surrounded by these strange paper oblongs. Maybe they had rich fantasy lives, or maybe they were raised by starfish who had no access to dry printed material, who knows, but Nina judged them and felt guilty for doing so.
I have to say, it was the word “Bookish” in the title which drew me in. Talk about self-indulgent – from a proud bookish person! – and superficial reasons! And then it languished on my tbr pile for a while until I mentioned it in a couple of posts and people were saying it was so good…
And Nina Hill is a fair distance from my usual fare when it comes to reading. No ghosts or ghouls. No creepy mansions. No series of grisly murders. No death – well except one significant one but it is entirely natural causes! No mystery to be solved. Am I going to have to add an additional genre to my category lists of… romance? And not in a chivalrous, Arthurian romance way, nor in a Byronic Romantic way – golly that one word does so much work!
It is telling that the opening sequence has Nina shocked and horrified that a customer at Knight’s Bookshop on Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles is trying to return a copy of Pride and Prejudice because it was “a very boring book; all they do is sit around and talk.” And in Nina Hill, all that really happens is that they sit around and talk and live.
Knight’s is the beating heart of the novel: the haven and safety offered by the book shop allows Nina – suffering from social anxiety and an need to organise her life – to feel completely at home “with the plentiful sarcasm and soothing rows of book spines. It was heaven on earth. Now, if they could only get rid of the customers and lock the front doors, they’d really be onto something.” It is a deeply romanticised bookshop – akin to Hugh Grant’s in Notting Hill or the one visited by Belle in Beauty and the Beast. And, I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t want to work there? I’d probably set up a camp bed and live there!
Nina’s life appears rich with her job, and with running Knight’s book clubs, attending her own weekly book club, and a trivia team. And into this comes Jaggers with news of Pip’s great good fortune… oops! wrong book! … Into this comes Sarkassian with news of Nina’s somewhat mixed fortune: having been brought up in a single parent family without a father – and with an absent mother but wonderfully caring nanny – Sarkassian brings news of her biological father’s identity and his recent death and her inclusion in his will. Is the echo of Great Expectations deliberate? It’s hard not to make that assumption in such a bookish book – and Miss Havisham is name dropped later on.
And suddenly the carefully curated life is bombarded with new brothers and sisters, cousins and aunts – a somewhat bewildering array of which only a handful are given any real time or plot relevance, thankfully, otherwise the carefully described family tree would have been necessary. Oh, and there is a budding attraction between her and Tom, from a rival trivia team, to further complicate matters.
Nina’s dad – William Reynolds – plays a pretty significant role in the novel, despite being – you know – dead. And there are elements of almost a detective novel as Nina speaks to her newly extended family and comes to understand aspects of his somewhat contradictory character, philanderer, father, book lover, and through him a somewhat clearer picture of her own identity.
Nina has echoes of Eleanor Oliphant in her vulnerabilities, the careful building up of routine to protect herself, her breakdown – but gentler. And I am not meaning that to be either a criticism or condescension. She was a delightful and tender creation, vivid and imminently readable, and courageous in a quiet understated manner.
The style of Waxman’s writing is conversational and chatty with frequent narrative asides and parentheses – is it too much to call that style Dickensian? – which at times directly address the reader in a conversational tone, or relay characters’ internal monologues and commentaries – often ascerbically undermining their own dialogue. One memorable moment was at the cinema where
Nina shook his hand, feeling her systems coming back online. “The feeling is mutual.” (No, Nina! What the hell was that? Why do these stupid phrases come out of your mouth? What’s next, gum would be perfection?)
“So, here’s the weirdest thing,” said Lisa. “I can’t see the film after all, so here, have my ticket and you guys can go together.” She pushed her ticket into Nina’s hand and started to back away.
“No,” Tom yelped. (Great, Tom, attractive noise. Let’s hope she’s got a secret fetish for yodeling.) “Why? You texted me like ten minutes ago saying you were looking forward to it.”
The novel is genuinely funny and on occasion I did snigger out loud perhaps more than I should have. The machinations and manipulations from both trivia teams to pair Tom and Nina up were delightful – aided by a cameo by Jabba the Hutt (or at least a cardboard cutout of him, one of many many pop culture references that litter the novel alongside the literary allusions.
Altogether, Waxman’s is a quirky and fun voice handing us a quirky and endearing protagonist, in a witty and charming romance. What’s not to love?
Plot / Pace:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Headline Review
Date: 9th July 2019