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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman on the Road to Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy, but what serious reader wants to read about happiness? The French author Henry de Montherlant said that “happiness writes in white ink on a white page.” It can’t be captured; not with dignity, anyway. Happy art so often equals kitsch. The poet Edward Hirsch, in response to Montherlant’s edict, once wrote: “I don’t believe that only sorrow/and misery can be written.”

The novelist Lily King must be in Hirsch’s camp. Her new book, “Writers & Lovers,” set in 1997, begins in mourning and frustration, but it more or less persuasively opens out to genuine, even giddy, hope.

Its narrator, Casey Peabody, is a 31-year-old who bikes three miles to and from work as a waitress in Harvard Square. She lives in a small room — a former potting shed that still smells like “loam and rotting leaves” — attached to the garage of a friend of her brother’s. In opening lines that are both breezy and potent, Casey says: “I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex.”

So, problems with cash flow and love life. The two other most salient facts about Casey, she soon reveals, are that she is an aspiring writer and that her mother has recently died. Years earlier, including time spent in an M.F.A. program, Casey had a cohort of wannabe writer friends, but they’ve all abandoned the craft, except for one woman who has been “working on a novel set during World War II for as long as I’ve known her.”

Casey hasn’t told her co-workers at the restaurant about her loss. “I don’t want to be the girl whose mother just died,” she says. Referring to herself as a girl might simply be King’s nod to her character’s insecurity, but it also reflects the fact that Casey sometimes reads much younger than even an unsettled 31.

Her mother died suddenly during a trip to Chile with friends. Her father, who pressured Casey when younger to pursue a promising career in golf, once lost a teaching and coaching job because he was peeping into the girls’ locker room along with some male students. The one time we see him reappear in Casey’s life, he acts the part of a two-dimensional villain.

Credit…Winky Lewis

In a delightful, very brief section on famous writers’ relationships to their dead mothers, Casey tells us that when Edith Wharton’s mother, who had discouraged her daughter’s writing (and even reading), died, Wharton “sent her husband to the funeral. She stayed home to write.” Men are included in that section (Proust, D. H. Lawrence), but that Wharton tidbit chimes loudest with King’s project here.

On her bike, Casey passes a woman running, “sweatshirt hood up, fists clenched. We catch eyes just before she passes. Help, we seem to be saying to each other.” King’s novel is help of a sort, an unmistakable broadside against fiction’s love affair with macho strivers, even — or especially — when layers of lyricism and tenderness coat their machismo.

“Nearly every guy I’ve dated believed they should already be famous,” Casey says, “believed that greatness was their destiny and they were already behind schedule.” Of a prospective date who’s got writer’s block, she says: “I can’t go out with a guy who’s written 11½ pages in three years. That kind of thing is contagious.”

The nonwriters are even worse. A chef at work obscenely berates her. A customer squeezes her waist while he tells her how to do her job. “How’s the novel?” her landlord asks. Casey thinks: “He says it like I made the word up myself.”

“Writers & Lovers” marks a return for King to contemporary life after her novel “Euphoria,” in which she imagined the anthropologist Margaret Mead in a romantic triangle during a 1933 field trip to New Guinea. The New York Times Book Review named that novel one of the 10 Best Books of 2014.

One might guess this new novel was deeply autobiographical even if King hadn’t said as much. Her own mother died unexpectedly not long after “Euphoria” was published, and this was her third attempt at a novel since then. The emotional force of “Writers & Lovers” is considerable, but it takes some time to land. As sometimes counterintuitively happens in autobiographical fiction, there’s a strange unconvincingness that hovers over stretches of this book. One wonders if not having to strenuously imagine this time and these circumstances means that some of the supporting characters and scenery feel more stock than a writer of King’s talent intends. She spends a bit too much time early on establishing the scene of the restaurant, with characters who feel like supporting players in a TV show. A reader could be forgiven for feeling a bit unchallenged and uninvested after 50 pages. But sticking with this novel offers rewards, and by the time Casey is shuttling between her romantic experiences with two very different men (not unlike Mead in “Euphoria”; the triangle is a shape that suits this author), King’s straightforward prose and deep feeling have hit their stride.

Those two men are Oscar and Silas. Oscar is an acclaimed novelist, the father of two young boys. Silas is a charming, struggling writer — closer to Casey’s age and living a tenuous, yearning life much like her own. Her time with each of them, and her weighing of their qualities, is closely and well observed.

Things really fall into place for Casey as the novel draws to a close — in a pretty heavy-handed avalanche, actually. But King is too smart to send a character riding off into the sunset. She simply leaves Casey in a very promising place, no more or less precarious than she had been when things were bad and could turn good. She leaves her savoring the newly secure things in her life that “might just last.”

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