You need to know about this book. I picked up How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson on a whim the last time I was at the library, and it turned into one of those books. You know the ones. I had to have it near me (it’s tucked against my leg right now). I felt nervous if I left home without it. I’m an, ah, involved reader in general, but it doesn’t often happen that I regularly find myself talking out loud to a book–arguing with or cheering on characters, laughing, swearing, yelling. About half an hour after I finished it I started crying, partly due to the kickback from the emotional surge of the book, partly because it was over. I think I read nearly half the book twice in my attempts to delay the sad moment when there would be none left.
The book is about Carley Wells, who is a pretty average girl living in a neighborhood straight out of Gatsby (seriously–one mom “practices” her mannerisms by studying an old tape of Jackie Kennedy). Carley’s overweight, devoted to her best friend, Hunter (the ‘golden’ boy, who’s struggling with an increasing dependency on alcohol and painkillers and the frustration of living in an image other people created), but not particularly interested in the social climbing scene. She also dislikes reading. Normally I’d shudder in horror, but considering the teacher she has to deal with, I can actually see her point. She’s a sweet girl, but not outstanding. Her parents, naturally, decide that the way to make her stand out on her college applications is to concentrate on a passion for literature, and commission an author to write a book to Carley’s specifications, the Book that will make her love to read.
From there, How to Buy a Love of Reading hones in on relationships. There’s Carley’s interaction with Bree, the high-concept meta-fictionist hired to write The Book, and their process of realizing what stories are about. There’s Bree and Justin (aka Rock Star), the bestselling author she went to college with, who hopes to reconcile with her. Most importantly, though, it’s about Carley and Hunter.
Carley and Hunter’s friendship is the reason for the yelling and cursing and pleading. Words like “raw” and “heartbreaking” don’t feel deep enough. It is painful to read, painful to write about, painful to think about. There are times when unconditional love and insurmountable difference coexist. The times when friendship continues through irreparable hurt because there is no way to stop loving that person. Ever. Times of clinging to each moment of ease and joy because they need to be enough to weather longer stretches of doubt and pain.
Gibson knows this kind of friendship intimately. In different hands, it would be easy to call Hunter a jerk, to call Carley weak. It would be too easy to dismiss the whole relationship with a wave of the hand and tell Carley it’s time to cut her losses and move on. Gibson knows it’s about more than who the other person is. It’s about who you are, and what it means to believe in a person, a love, without demanding proof before offering forgiveness. She knows the question is how you define yourself and the other person at every stage of a friendship.
I know what it’s like to have a Hunter. My friendship was different, and so was the way it ended (less complicated, thankfully. Less devastating in terms of what was said and done), but the emotions hit home. That’s why it’s so painful to read, and so perfect. Everything’s stirred back up again, but she meets you in exactly the right place to understand.
And Gibson does come back to the Book that makes her book’s title relevant, and that feels right, too. She does not try to make the book-within-a-book parallel the main narrative. She does not play stupid tricks. She does use the Book as a yardstick for Carley, a place to ground her as she grows, and by the end the parts of the story feel like they are where they are supposed to be.