Esme Garland is a young Englishwoman living in New York & studying for a PhD at Columbia. Her boyfriend, economics lecturer Mitchell van Leuven, dumps her just before she’s about to tell him that she’s pregnant. Far from home & living on a student visa, Esme gets a job at The Owl, her local second-hand bookshop. The Owl is home to a group of eccentrics, both staff & customers. George owns the shop & is obsessed with germs & nutrition. Luke brings his guitar to work & tries to educate Esme about American music. Many of the customers are eccentric & a number of homeless men drop in regularly with bargains to sell or to mind the shop for a few dollars.
Esme decides to keep the baby but doesn’t tell Mitchell. When he finds out, he wavers between urging her to have an abortion & wanting to get married. Mitchell’s family is descended from the old New York patrician families of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. His parents are cool & assessing, obviously thinking that Esme has trapped Mitchell into proposing. Esme is disconcerted by Mitchell’s ever-changing attitudes & assumptions that she will stop working in the bookshop & even move to the other side of the country. Through all this turmoil, the staff & customers at the Owl become the centre of Esme’s world. She has few friends apart from her neighbour, Stella, & feels increasingly alone. Mitchell may be rich & handsome but, for me, he was summed up in this one comment, “… I don’t need to buy books. I’ve got the whole of the library at the New School, as well as my iPad. Why do people still buy books? They just take up space.”
The main problem I had with this book was Mitchell. He was so unpleasant, so self-centred, manipulative, needlessly jealous & unsympathetic that I just couldn’t see why Esme agreed to get back together when she’d so fortunately escaped from him in about Chapter 3. He obviously has some deep emotional problems but we never discover the source of these, only the results. Esme has an inconclusive talk with an old girlfriend of Mitchell’s but it leads nowhere. Their on-again, off-again relationship just got in the way of an interesting story about an Englishwoman alone in New York coping with pregnancy & all the financial & emotional problems that this causes. Every time Esme dismissed Mitchell or he left in a huff, I thought there was the chance for this novel to become something more. The most interesting chapters for me were the scenes at the Owl. The interactions with George & Luke, Esme’s stumbling attempts to fit in & the growing friendships she makes that sustain her through several crises. Unfortunately Esme’s erratic waverings about Mitchell just irritated me.
There are no easy answers for Esme as she faces the prospect of bringing up a baby alone in New York. Although I was frustrated by Esme’s relationship with Mitchell, I did enjoy the Owl & the discussions about books & music there. The Bookstore is a fantasy in some ways as I don’t imagine that Esme could possibly survive on her scholarship & the few hours she works at the Owl. Apart from the fact that she shouldn’t be working at the bookshop at all while on the scholarship. I liked the fact that there was no neat resolution at the end of the book but I’m not sure that the delights of the Owl outweighed the irritations of Mitchell for me.
I read The Bookstore courtesy of NetGalley.