The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess REVIEW

A sensual summertime debut novel that never feels like it's a debut, thanks to a skillful and confident turn by its author.

last book party

“My face was wet and salty, from tears and from the sea air.”

There are three kinds of readers: The ones who only read non-fiction, the mostly fiction readers who will take a gander at non-fiction from time to time (just to prove we can), and finally, we have the ones so inspired by stories that they want to craft some of their own. In The Last Book Party, our protagonist Eve Rosen is an avid reader who yearns to be a writer, but has been encouraged to believe that writing takes genius and isn’t for the merely mediocre.

Eve has always been in the shadow of her brother – his brilliance as well as his struggles with depression. So when her work at a publisher gets her into the social circle of Henry, Tillie and their son Franny, she feels ever so starstruck and is made to feel special in her connection with them. Refusing to play it safe, she dives recklessly into these relationships, caught in the carefree hues of summer. An outsider to all this is Franny’s friend Jeremy, who is all edge and thorns with her, with none of Franny’s easy presence.

As Eve navigates the waves of all these relationships, we wonder who she will end up with before realising that’s not the point. Eve is not Eve with any of them, wanting them to recognise her creativity and wit but diluting herself in the process. With the exception of Eve, there is no character really likeable enough in The Last Book Party to warrant my sympathy. These gatherings of literary folk come across as pretentious and superficial, where none of the relationships feel authentic, and their behaviour feels so contrary to what writing and storytelling should be about.

It is heartbreaking to see Eve turning over the pieces of herself after that summer, trying to figure out who she is and where she exists in the world of writing. It is a painful thing to recognise you are a writer, since at times it is an experience akin to Sisyphus and the arduous pushing of a boulder to get nowhere. However, its siren call cannot be avoided as we throw ourselves against the rocks for a taste of literary glory.

“In those books were more stories than could be counted – not just the stories on the pages, but the stories that had spurred someone to find the words and write them down.”

Karen Dukess is a debut novelist. I had to remind myself of that fact many times as I read The Last Book Party, because her prose is intricate and far from green. There is none of the usual pitfalls most debut writers face, which is a need to excessively deliver on the exposition. She is also excellent at crafting chemistry and anticipation on a page, painting sensual strokes so skillfully that a simple hair tug can feel combustible.

It is the kind of book to gobble up in one seating, probably on a beach somewhere under a big red umbrella, with the water lazily licking the sand. Or you can read it the way I did, while standing in queue for cup noodles in Japan – you are guaranteed a fantastic experience either way.

Review copy provided

Verdict
Karen Dukess delivers quite the summer knock-out with The Last Book Party. She captures the mood and sentiment of a 1980s New York and Cape Cod perfectly, delivering a wonderful novel about self-discovery and what it means to be a writer.
9

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