Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Wednesday, February 27, 2019: Maximum Shelf: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Berkley Books: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Berkley Books: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Berkley Books: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Berkley Books: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman

Abbi Waxman applies her signature wit and warmth to bookseller and consummate introvert Nina Hill's journey in her third novel, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. Mostly happy with her life in Los Angeles, Nina lives alone (with her cat, Phil) in a small guest cottage arranged to her liking and earns a living working at Knight's, an independent bookstore nearby. When she's not selling books or reading them, she spends her evenings killing it at trivia competitions (as part of the crack team Book 'Em, Danno) and intending to go to yoga or spin classes.

A millennial who soaks up information (trivial and otherwise) like a sponge, Nina nevertheless lives mostly in her own head instead of online as many of her peers do. Waxman lets readers in on the fun, capturing Nina's smart, eccentric third-person inner voice as she navigates the daily challenges of life, and then as she's forced to reckon with several seismic changes.

Raised chiefly by her beloved nanny while her Australian photographer mother travelled the world, Nina has never felt the lack of a family. But when her estranged father, William Reynolds, dies suddenly, his lawyer tracks down Nina and drops several bombshells, starting with the fact of her parentage. Now, Nina stands to gain both a potential inheritance and a large, unruly extended family that she isn't sure she wants. At the same time, Nina meets Tom, a fellow trivia wiz who might just prove interesting--and sexy--enough for Nina to embark on an actual relationship.

Nina's story unfolds in a series of intended-to-be-ordinary days, annotated frequently by pages torn out of her day planner. These are crisscrossed with notes, information, grocery lists and aspirations (including those spin classes), and they provide a clue to Nina's emotional state, especially regarding the new relationships she's juggling. Waxman captures the internal back-and-forth between Nina's rapacious intellect, her fairly sturdy self-esteem and her high levels of anxiety, which has led her to seek out constant ways to stimulate her brain. (She keeps busy partly to manage her anxiety: she knows that said brain would "drive her insane with endless meandering rivers of thought" if left to its own devices.)

As Nina gets to know her family, she comes to understand there's more at stake than a simple fight over an inheritance. William Reynolds was married three times and had children by at least four different women, and he seemed to be an entirely different man in each incarnation of family life. Every one of his ex-spouses and their children, understandably, have strong (and strongly expressed) opinions about their particular version of William, while Nina, never having met him, ends up sifting through the conflicting reports and trying to make up her own mind. Along the way, she acquires a few relatives she thinks she'd like to keep, including Peter, her perfectly turned-out, wisecracking nephew, and Millie, her 10-year-old half-sister and fellow bookworm. There are also, naturally, several relatives who drive her (and everyone) up the wall, most notably Nina's niece Lydia, who seems convinced that Nina (and the entire world) is out to take what's rightfully hers. Nina's family is an engaging and necessary foil to her solitary life. Waxman renders the characters in it--even Lydia--with keen-eyed detail and affection. 

Waxman returns to her own neighborhood (also the setting of her two previous novels), the Larchmont area of Los Angeles, for Nina's story. The novel's supporting cast, made up of Nina's friends, acquaintances and customers at the bookstore, eventually comes to include characters from Waxman's prior works. Lili, the wry, kind-hearted graphic designer who starred in The Garden of Small Beginnings, and her daughters are a welcome addition to the narrative, especially when Nina finds a kindred fact-obsessed spirit in six-year-old Clare. Because this neighborhood functions like a village in the midst of a big city, the characters' lives intertwine with Nina's (and each other's) in surprising ways, as the bookstore where she works struggles to stay afloat and her relationship with Tom edges toward blossoming. Nina's repartee with Liz and Polly, her colleagues, is especially smart and entertaining.

Waxman has the gift of writing wisecracking, breezy novels that nevertheless contain some real growth for her characters. In this case, Nina is forced to re-examine the carefully constructed boundaries of her introverted life, and decide for herself which ones she wants to loosen and which ones she wants to keep. She doesn't undergo a radical personality change, nor does Waxman (or indeed anyone else) suggest that she should. But by the book's end, Nina is more able to function in the world as herself--and she's getting better at explaining to other people when she just needs a moment (or a day) alone.

Sunny and witty, packed with random trivia facts straight from Nina's encyclopedic reading, and peppered with literary references, Nina's story is a celebration of introversion, a love letter to independent bookstores and an insightful meditation on family and belonging. --Katie Noah Gibson

Berkley, $16, trade paper, 352p., 9780451491879, July 9, 2019

Berkley Books: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Abbi Waxman: A Love Letter to Independent Booksellers

(photo: Leanna Creel)

Abbi Waxman is the author of The Garden of Small Beginnings and Other People's Houses. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, three children, a menagerie of pets and far too much chocolate. Her new novel is The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, coming from Berkley on July 9, 2019.

Nina struggles with severe anxiety, but she's mostly learned to manage it. How did you write a protagonist with anxiety, but address it in a fairly light-hearted way?

Anxiety is so common, and we don't really talk about it--though maybe we are starting to talk about it more, as a society. Nina has essentially sorted out her life in a way that works for her, so she's mostly able to manage her anxiety.

I wanted to write a character who was happily introverted and didn't feel any pressure to change who she was. There's nothing wrong with being an introvert, and being the kind of person who prefers her own company to that of other people. I wanted to write a character who was comfortable with herself, not just trying to fit in. Certainly there are struggles--and you always have to ask yourself, "What does your main character want?" Nina, at the beginning, just wants to be left in peace. To be left alone. But then she meets a man who she maybe wants to spend more time with, and the struggle is within herself. Can she get out of her own way enough to try something new?

I also wanted Nina to find a relationship with someone who accepts her for herself. Sometimes she does need a bit of space, because that's how she takes care of herself. And it's not in Tom's nature to understand that. He's a caretaker--that's his nature. He will eventually have to accept that sometimes Nina needs some space. And Nina will have to accept that he wants to help her, and that letting him do that might not be the worst thing.

Nina's story deals with the topic of family in a slightly unusual way: her estranged father dies, and she suddenly gains a whole new extended family that she isn't sure she wants.

Yes. Nina's life is going along peacefully and then basically everything blows up at once! So she has to decide what to do about it. She ends up with a couple of family members who are awesome, and a few that drive her crazy, which feels really normal to me. We all have family members we love, and some who drive us up the wall.

In the case of her youngest sister, Millie, Nina is also seeing how for the first time she can help someone else. That is a pleasure in itself--to be able to help other people--and that's character growth for her. She begins to think about how she can help Millie--be there for her--even if it means giving up some of her precious alone time.

Nina is a trivia wiz. Tell us about this part of her personality.

I think millennials consume media and creative output of all kinds in a more meta way than my generation did. They'll go see a movie and then they'll read lots of reviews about it, and discuss it online. There's a lot more discursive content about media than there was when I was their age. With the constant news cycle, trivia has become like conversational glue--like squirrels sharing nuts, little nuggets of cultural information. For Nina, it's a self-soothing activity as well. She gets anxious in social situations, and this often gives her something to say that people will pretend to be interested in.

Throughout the book, Nina is trying to learn about her father, who was married several times--but it almost seems that he was several different men.

Yes. My original idea for the book was quite different. I wanted to write about the destruction a narcissistic person can leave behind. There's lots of divorce in my generation: I am a child of divorce, and I have many friends who are, too.

My sister and I tend to joke that we were the lucky ones of our father's three sets of children. His leaving was devastating, of course. I was seven when my parents divorced. But in my father's case, his being around more for my stepbrothers was actually quite damaging. A person can do so much damage in different ways over time, because people do change. But we can't always see our parents clearly as people. We never see people as they really are: we see them through our own lens. So I wanted to write about a character who gains a new family member, but she never actually meets him. She has to figure out her impression of him. I wanted to explore how one's perception of someone is affected by other people.

Nina's day-planner pages appear throughout the book, and they are so entertaining--a window into her emotional state at times.

I'm glad you think so. Sometimes it was easier for me to show what was going on than to write it. Nina's trying so hard to sort everything out, and I thought readers could read into the way she was doing things. I could show rather than tell that she'd had a big fight with someone, for example, and was going to turn over a new leaf. And then real life intervenes, inevitably.

Nina's workplace faces a crisis, but--mild spoiler--she is able to save the day in the end.

I had to go for a happy ending. It's a bit clichéd, but it's fun. And I hope people like Nina and feel empathy for her. She's inspired by all the booksellers I meet when I go around to bookstores. They are without fail intelligent, thoughtful, snappily dressed young women. I would have liked to be like them when I was their age. Ultimately, the novel is sort of a love letter to independent booksellers, and young women in particular.

The kind of books I like to write are a little bit funny, a little bit sad, and with a happy ending. All of my books are the books that you pick up, read and then loan to a friend. I want to be escapist! That's the best possible outcome for me. I ask myself: Is this a pleasure to read? Is it a pleasure to write? And if my sister thinks it's funny--that's the ultimate test--then we're good. --Katie Noah Gibson

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