“The Book Haters’ Book Club” by Gretchen Anthony; Park Row (336 pages, $28.99)
For starters: No one hates the books in “The Book Haters’ Book Club,” Minneapolis-based Gretchen Anthony’s lively anthem to small, independent bookstores and the people who keep them bucking the tide. This story isn’t really about the books, but about the delicate dynamic between mothers, daughters, and partners (domestic and otherwise).
Irma Bedford is the longtime owner of Lyn-Lake Over the Rainbow Bookstore, nicknamed by her late business partner, Elliot, after her beloved Judy Garland. (Anthony checks the name of Magers & Quinn and Moon Palace, but the Rainbow is a figment of his imagination.) It’s the kind of place someone might pick up a book on Cubism for his grandson from 4 years. It’s also the kind of place a big, bad developer would want to buy up and tear down to build soulless condos.
To the dismay of her daughter Bree and Elliot’s life partner Thom, Irma intends to let this happen. Thom is still reeling from the loss of Elliot and mostly just wants a fair share of the proceeds from the sale. Bree, 40 and seemingly lifeless outside the store, is almost hysterical at the news. And the joker, his daughter Laney, who is also 40 (they’re not twins – it’s complicated), arrives from California with her own unresolved feelings for her mother, sister, bookstore and Neanderthal husband. she left behind.
Bree, Thom, and Laney patch up their estrangements long enough to form a cabal to undermine the sale, a subterfuge that involves a guy in a trench coat and a late-night dance party at a nearby wasteland to gain publicity. But this endgame is a red herring, and another crisis arises in the middle of the novel, thanks to Irma’s escape on her reasons for selling.
Ah, the madly obtuse Irma. The ambiguity surrounding her intentions and her true feelings towards Elliot lends a welcome air of mystery to the company; we never really know if she’s a villain or a victim in the whole scheme. We know it’s an integral and beloved part of the close-knit neighborhood, with the family-owned hardware store next door and the hip distillery across the street. Anthony skillfully evokes a “Lyn-Lake” which is reminiscent of the real thing.
And she spins some lovely phrases – Thom had “become so thin that the once-lovely (sweaters) hung from his bones, moldy tapestries on an old mansion wall. Bree, in her hesitant angst about possible new love, “was beginning to sound like a Jane Austen character. Not one of the redeemables like Elizabeth or Jane, but a boring and ridiculous one like their mother. But Anthony often falls for overly cute descriptions and dialogue, and Elliot – who rises from the grave with “dear reader” interludes – proves particularly boring.
But these are quibbles. Local readers will delight in the references that dot the pages – Turtle Bread! Pastry 46! Bde Maka Ska! — and readers of all persuasions will eat the book recommendations that pop up. So maybe “The Book Haters’ Book Club” is about books, just a little bit. As the grandmother who is interested in cubism says: “A neighborhood without bookstores is as boring as a life without books.”