Warning: This review contains spoilers, even though I try to not give away too much. Think of it as more than a blurb and less than a book report 🙂
I’m not one for the average chick lit, though I’m not even sure if The Bookish Life of Nina Hill actually IS chick lit. Sure, ‘chick lit’ is just a stupid marketing term that wants to sell certain a kind of books – most often beautiful young women falling in love. Yes, they pursue their careers and interests but only until prince oh-what-a-special-kind-of-not-all-men enters their life. Then the focus is love – see Bridget Jones, to mention just one well-known example.
While I appreciate a good love story if it supports the main storyline, I’m not a big fan of romance being the overall focus. There are a lot of great authors out there writing about the lives of youngish women without solely focusing on love and romance. (Ali Smith, Lorrie Moore, Toni Morrison, Kate Atkinson, Bernardine Evaristo, Eleanor Catton, Sarah Perry, Elif Shafak, Yaa Gyasi, Siri Hustvedt … to name just a few.) Though how much romance is too much depends on personal preferences, of course. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, to me, wasn’t so much a love story as it was a story of self-discovery with a dash of romance.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s get to know Nina Hill
Our main protagonist, Nina Hill, is 29 and living a rather quiet life in LA. Or so the author wants us to believe. Let me put it that way: If I had Nina’s colorful social life – even BEFORE she meets her new family – I would be back on antidepressants in no time to cope with all the stress. Work, friends, book club, trivia team – I wouldn’t call this ‘living in a shell.’ But that’s just me, and I do enjoy my shell.
Anyway – back to Nina. She lives in the LA neighborhood of Larchmont, where she works in a bookstore, Knight’s. Obviously, she owns a lot of books – it’s called ‘bookish’ life for a reason. She also has a cat, Phil, who likes to comments on events, sort of. And she suffers from anxiety. Basically, she’s a typical millennial in the eyes of marketing departments and feature article writers all over the Western world:
In public Nina was a quiet, reserved person; in private she was an all-singing, all-dancing cavalcade of light and motion. Unless she was a quivering ball of anxiety because that was also a frequently selected option. She was very good at hiding it, but anxiety was like her anti-superpower, the one that comes out unbidden in a crisis. The Hulk gets angry; Nina got anxious. Nina had a lot of sympathy for Bruce Banner, particularly the version played by Mark Ruffalo, and at least she had Xanax. He had only Thor.
After her father, whom she never knew, dies, she is overwhelmed by the prospect of suddenly being a member of a big family. Siblings, nieces, nephews, and stepmoms. William Reynolds sure left an imprint on this world. And Peter, his grandson and Nina’s nephew – who is actually four years her senior – is the one to introduce her to the new brood:
“Ok, so here’s William at the top, and here, ranged from left to right, are his three wives. The main reason the family is so wide is that he married for the first time at twenty and the last time at sixty. He had kids each time, and those big gaps of time allow for three generations to be born, obviously.”
Nina had no idea what he was talking about, but nodded. “Obviously.”
Peter is also her “fabulous gay nephew”, by the way – which sounds cute, but also very stereotypical. Nevertheless, Peter is lovely, and he’s just one of several rather cliched characters.
Take Nina’s mom, for example. Being a renowned photographer, Candice Hill is always traveling the world, leaving the job of bringing up her daughter to nanny Louise. Nina – an introverted bookworm – is the complete opposite of her mother and feels much more comfortable at home, not traveling abroad, not even leaving LA.
Then we have Nina’s boss Liz, lovely, chaotic, and OF COURSE terrible at handling her finances. Or one of her nieces who accuses her of being a golddigger. Did I mention the fact that William was rather wealthy? Of course he was.
Last but not least, there is Tom, Nina’s love interest, who isn’t interested in reading and books. This poses the question of how a reader could get along with a non-reader … Drama baby drama.
Sounding like an awful nitpicker I should probably mention that I like that book very much. Reading it felt like a hug, a cozy blanket, and hot chocolate on a bad day. Nina Hill is lovely, quirky, and overall fun to read. It just got some rough edges we should talk about.
What’s special about Nina Hill?
Pictured as a typical millennial: suffering the occasional anxiety attack, feeling overwhelmed by a lot of different things that should be ‘normal’ for all of us (e.g. life), and withdrawing into fictional worlds. Nina makes a likable character easy to connect with. Still, as stated before, she is by far not as withdrawn and introverted as Abbi Waxman makes us believe, at least not in my book.
Especially regular trivia nights – taking place in crowded bars – and also book clubs require participants to not be total hermits. And that’s even before her new family enters the picture. Maybe I’m focusing too much on the “confident in her own shell” part on the blurb. While I am a loner by heart, I know that not every introvert likes to live in a shell. In which case they also not pretend to do so – or are presented as doing so …
Furthermore, this book is about Nina and her new family. Since a book about a young woman probably always has to include either romance, murder, or both, Waxman went for love and introduced Tom, Nina’s trivia rival and love interest. He’s a nice guy, for sure, but it’s not like he’s doing much for the plot apart from making things unnecessarily complicated. Abbi Waxman does not make Tom a central character (thank you!), rather putting him on the sidelines and giving him a place in the spotlight from time to time. Still, I could have done without him and all the fuzz. Not least since he adds one of the most awkward plot twists no one needed (and I also didn’t really get it but I guess I’m not sensitive enough …).
Nina’s new family brings with it one additional issue. While this storyline is funny, and at times surprising, it also creates kinship by introducing characters that are very similar to each other. This seems hard to believe in such a big patchwork family with a variety of genetic compositions. Except for the wives, all are bookish introverts with similar hair colors and anxiety issues. Really?
Also, can we decide on Nina being a traveler or not? Stating “I barely left the East Side of LA” or “I don’t want to go anywhere” only to mention a few pages later that “libraries were her favorite places, and when she traveled, she would start out at the local library, thus immediately identifying herself as a total nerd” are diametral and don’t support a consistent narrative. According to Nina’s own accounts, the only time she traveled was when she was a baby. I doubt she could hold a book properly back then, let alone was able to READ. Abbi, really – what were you thinking?
So much for the slip-ups. As stated before, I enjoyed reading this book for several reasons – some of which I should mention now to counter all my nitpicking 🙂
That’s special about Nina Hill
I’m angry with the author for being so careless about Nina’s story because I honestly like Nina and her world. Her not traveling makes total sense in the context of her story and her character. Carelessly mentioning an irrelevant fact for the sake of underlining Nina’s bookishness instead of being less ‘oh so bookish’ yet more true to the narrative she created would have served Waxman better.
I don’t care so much about little inconsistencies. Like, Nina repeatedly stating that she likes to be organized and plan ahead only to repeatedly change her plans for one reason or another. That’s life, things happen, even to anxious and introverted people (unfortunately). But I do care about neglecting central aspects of the story for no good reason other than to sound … ‘nerdy’?!
Regarding her family and the aforementioned similarities in character and look. Even though it’s striking, it also provides a basis for them accepting each other which might be far-fetched, but works well in this book’s universe. After all, this is a comedy and not a drama. Same as with a cozy mystery, this is not the kind of book I read when I want to occupy myself with a character study of the modern Western female in a society that is misogynist, fake, and intolerant towards anyone who is ‘different’ (however one defines this). Reading a book like Nina Hill, I enjoy the lightness of being and reading a ‘feel-good’ story. The ending is neither surprising nor especially original, but that in itself is comforting – at least to me. I don’t expect anything else from a book like this and overall Abbi Waxman did a solid job. She made me laugh, kept me entertained and interested in Nina and her world, and apart from some plot twists I found rather forced, she gave me what I wanted.
If she ever decides to continue Nina’s story, I’m in for it!
On a side note: I fell in love with the planner layout Waxman uses in the book and had to get it for myself. Oh, I can be nerdy too 🙂