Scribner - Simon & Schuster, 2012

In my early twenties, I bought Cosmopolitan religiously.

But I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a book that was blurbed by Cosmo. 

Or, if I have, it wasn’t also blurbed by Hilary Mantel.

But that’s the case with Katie Ward’s Girl Reading.

(Cosmopolitan + Hilary Mantel = Girl Reading ?)

I noticed that only when I had finished the first chapter/story and flipped to the back cover, to see if there had been a clue there.

Had I missed some hint that this could be one of my favourite books of this reading year?

You’re probably thinking that the cover was the biggest giveaway. Right?

It is enticing, isn’t it. And somehow it gives the impression of both simplicity and sumptuousness.

And this reflects Katie Ward’s achievements well.

Each story in Girl Reading stands, simply, on its own merits, but, collectively the stories gather into a rich and intricate whole.

Of course many readers would not pick up Girl Reading if they thought it was a collection of stories. And  that’s likely why this subtitle graces its lovely cover: “a novel”.

But, in fact, the book does require a short story reader’s patience.

(I suspect there is no end to the line of readers who were frustrated with this marketing decision, but I suspect the line of readers who wouldn’t have picked it up with the subtitle “stories” is just as long.)

Girl Reading has seven segments, and each introduces a starkly different setting (stretching from 1333, through 1668, 1775, 1864, 1916, and 2008, to 2060) and cast of characters.

What unites the work is that each segment is focusing on a particular work of art that is focusing on a particular reader.

Now, if you place yourself in that scene, you are the reader of Girl Reading, who is focusing on a reader in a work of art, who is viewed by the artist, who is created by Katie Ward.

That perspective can feel very intimate (the writer alone in her room creating a book about scenes with only — usually — two people, one the subject and one the artist).

But often in this collection there is a shifting sense of distance from the events that unfold in these stories. As the reader, you occasionally receive information about one of the characters in a way which leaves you aching to know more.

Major life events occur, but you are consigned to the position of “reader” or “viewer”. You want all the details. But you must content yourself with the perspective that you have.

And then there is the greater distance, that which requires the short story reader’s patience, because there is no clear link between the segments until the final story.

(Well, of course each work of art is about a girl reading, but with the subtitle “a novel” the reader can’t help but want something a little more, and that isn’t revealed until the final segment.)

But what offsets this is the care with which each segment is created. With an average length of 50 pages, Katie Ward creates credible and engaging  characters and pulls the reader, wholly, into each story.

Of course every reader will have their favourite stories. (My favourites were the first, surprisingly, and the fourth, not-so surprisingly. And I read this along with Danielle, whose favourites were the fifth and the fourth. If you want to peek at the first two stories, there is a Browse Inside option at Simon & Schuster’s page.)

But each segment is accomplished as an independent work. This is remarkable for a work of interconnected stories, and it adds to the sense of satisfaction with the volume as a whole.

Individually, the tales are not particularly bookish. The subjects of these artworks do read for all kinds of reasons, of course. Some readers are driven by boredom and others by piety, and some of the books are, really, just for show.

But Girl Reading is, fundamentally, about what happens between art and viewer (and let the bookish amongst us substitute ‘reader’ for ‘viewer’). It doesn’t really get more bookish than that, does it?

For flavour, here is a quote about one character’s experience of reading. But keep in mind that the style varies from piece to piece — although dialogue is never set apart in traditional quotation marks, and that is consistent — so this snippet is a bit wordy and dramatic in comparison to the styles of other stories.

From the second tale, Pieter Janssens Elinga Woman Reading, 1668. (I love the bit about the imprints of favorite passages, and the sense that she is actively choosing to read on, but pausing to replicate the familiar sense of wonder at how it will end.)

“The romance she is engrossed in has made etchings in her mind’s eye; she retraces them easily. The wind that convulses trees, the coolness of a spring, the snort of hot breath from Baiart’s nostrils, his stamping hoof, an outline of a castle on a hill. Esther’s heart is with Malegis at each test of strength and virtue: do not drink from the poisoned chalice – hold fast – fight back. She fears for his safety and wills him to win. They travel for miles together. Parts she has forgotten she rediscovers; the imprints of favorite passages burn bright with renewed color and feeling. If she reads on, the horse will reveal his fabulous qualities and save Malegis’s life.”

If you’re even slightly curious about this one, do check out Danielle’s post on A Work in Progress; she’s taken quite a different approach to discussing the work and, really, the only thing better than being a girl reading Girl Reading is being Two Girls Reading Girl Reading.

Have you read Katie Ward’s debut? Are you considering it?