The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (2019): Abbi Waxman

★★★

My book club has already thrown up several choices that take me outside my usual reading habits. Following on from Liar’s Candle, this month’s selection is a light and bubbly piece of biblio-chick-lit. Nina Hill is an attractive, kooky, bookish 29-year-old singleton, who works in a bookstore (of course she does), and lives alone with her cat (naturally) in a picturesque suburb of Los Angeles. She plans her life with military precision, but as the book starts she’s about to encounter two major curveballs that threaten to disrupt her cherished schedule. One curveball is Tom, the cute guy in the rival team at trivia night (aka pub-quiz night for Brits). The other, potentially more shattering, is news that Nina’s father has died. This comes as something of a shock, since she never knew who her father was. As she embarks on this terrifyingly unpredictable new chapter of her life, she must push herself to her limits, forcing herself out of the comfort zone she has so painstakingly created for herself. Will it be worth it?

In theory, I am the target audience for this book. Like many of Nina’s potential readers, I empathise deeply with her character traits: bibliophilia, unwieldy ‘to be read’ lists, introversion, obsessive planning, deep-rooted anxiety, a tendency to fall down rabbit holes on Pinterest, a resistance to last-minute changes, and excessive fondness for quiz nights. It’s actually rather humbling, having spent my life thinking that these traits make me unique and interesting, to realise that at thirty I could’ve been essentially the blueprint for a quirky chick-lit heroine (minus the cat). Obviously, things could be worse. But I was surprised by the number of times I found myself highlighting something that chimed scarily well with my own experience. I suppose lots of other women out there can relate just as well to Nina’s life. And I suspect that I’m meant to find the book warm and welcoming: the tale of a kindred spirit. Maybe I would have done, if I hadn’t felt so strongly that Nina was carefully manufactured to be a cross between universally appealing rom-com heroine, and intellectual manic pixie dream girl.

Nina Hill’s life has been eccentric from the start. Her mother, a globetrotting, hands-off photographer, has always implied that she can’t even remember who Nina’s father was. The little girl has been raised by her beloved nanny Louise, in a comfortable flat, while her mother roams around the world. Now the adult Nina has a cosy bolthole in a verdant quarter of Los Angeles, full to the brim with books. She loves solitude, but has a close and supportive network – ranging from her cat, Phil (with whom she has conversations), to her boss Liz and her pub quiz team. Everything in Nina’s life is scheduled – any free time leaves her with a bit of an existential crisis, and she carefully plans every moment of her week, ensuring time for all her hobbies on a regular basis. Nina’s friends seem to think she’s over-planned and inflexible, and that she needs to learn to go with the flow a bit more. Personally, I’m with Nina on this, which probably won’t surprise anyone who knows me in real life (maybe I can recommend Getting Things Done to Nina?).

But Nina’s dislike of surprises or sudden changes to her schedule is about to be tested. One day, while at work, she receives an unexpected visit from a solicitor, who informs her that her father William Reynolds has just died and that she’s expected to be present at the reading of the will. Nina is alarmed for various reasons. First, because she assumed her mother had no idea who her father was. Secondly, she doesn’t want anything to do with this man who’s just ignored her existence her entire life. Thirdly, she’s terrified at the thought of suddenly having a family, when she and Phil have been doing perfectly well on their own, thank you. But there’s no getting out of it, and soon Nina finds herself meeting members of her unforeseen, sprawling, rich and eccentric family, and fitting herself into the very complicated family tree of the Reynolds clan. With her anxiety ramped up to fever-pitch by all these revelations, the last thing Nina needs right now is emotional entanglement – though that also seems to be on the cards, thanks to the brooding Tom, who keeps sending her significant glances. What to do?!

I think that the reason I never quite gelled with this is because it feels like an American comedy series. It’s gentle, self-consciously kooky, and upbeat, with reliably eccentric secondary characters and a smattering of zany episodes (a camel gatecrashes a wedding; Nina’s boss and the landlord of their shop find inner peace through hash cookies; a food fight erupts during a street festival). There were times when I could almost hear the laugh track. As a cynical Brit, I occasionally missed the snark that would have added a little bite to balance out the cuteness. And I became unwontedly intrigued by the decision to make Nina 29. In rom-com terms, this means she’s old enough to be relatable to the bookish twenty-and-thirty-somethings who are going to be the key audience for the novel. On the other hand, we have a sneaking sense, from the very beginning, that Nina Hill (like Bridget Jones) will somehow find her place and her man before she reaches the age of 30 – which, for some reason, still seems to be treated as a Dante-at-the-gates-of-hell moment (abandon hope all ye who enter here).

The bottom line is this: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is a warm-hearted piece of feel-good froth, as cosy as a thick blanket and fluffy socks on a cold night. You can see the plot storming towards you with irresistible force from a fairly early stage, and the best strategy is simply to sit back and enjoy it. And I did enjoy it, I promise you: disliking this book would feel like kicking a puppy. Sometimes we do all need a bit of escapism – yes, even cynical Brits – and at those times I think this book would be just the tonic, especially for dyed-in-the-wool bibliophiles, who will savour the in-jokes. It probably won’t make a lasting impact. But it’s amusing, entertaining, and undemanding, and also, somehow, peculiarly American.

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