I love books about books. Books about authors, about writing, about bookstores. I guess it’s because it creates a sense of camaraderie between me, the author and the characters in the story—I love books enough to read them, the author loves books enough to write about them and the characters love books enough to make them their life’s work. Terri-Lynne DeFino’s new novel The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) fell into this category, and it made for a joyful read.
As the title suggests, the story takes place in a retirement home in Bar Harbor, Maine, where all of the residents were involved in the literary world when they were younger. They were bestselling authors, like Alfonse Carducci, Olivia Peppernell and Raymond Switcher, they were fierce, accomplished editors, like Judi Arsenault, or they were agents, artists or what have you. This premise is what drew me in; I liked the idea of all these brilliant people with shared experiences and successes being forced to confront, or ignore, aging together. Also in the retirement home, as the title suggests, are muses. And for Alfonse, this is Cecibel Bringer, a withdrawn orderly with a dark past, who inspires him to write again.
This isn’t in the synopsis on the back of the book, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler. The story that Cecibel inspires Alfonse and others to write is interspersed throughout the book. At first I didn’t love this, because the characters at the retirement home were plentiful and complex, and I felt like they weren’t being given enough time to grow and develop because of the breaks being taken from the narrative for the other story—especially because the story in the present was being told from multiple points of view. For example, it seemed to me for the first third of the book or so that Cecibel was the main character, but then we didn’t hear anything from her for around three chapters.
However, my opinion changed by the end of the book, as I was drawn more into the story that the characters had written than the story that the author was telling. Perhaps it was because the stakes felt higher and clearer, or perhaps it was because it was filled with intrigue, sex, forbidden longing, background dealings…things that you don’t typically find in a retirement home. And as I neared the novel’s end, I found myself disappointed that I wasn’t getting more of that story.
This may have been the case because the story within a story was essentially a romance, and that is where DeFino’s experience is. Prior to this book, DeFino authored a romance series, and that shows here, both in the strength of the romantic passages and also in her tendency to hint very vaguely at characters’ backstories early in the novel, only to slowly dribble out details over the course of the narrative. There are many things I love about romance writing, but this is one characteristic that I’m not as keen on, and in this instance I think it muddied my ability to fully connect with the characters.
As far as the characters in the retirement home, I adored Olivia, so feisty and lively and loving yet hardened and empathetic. I wish we’d gotten more of Sal, a manager at the retirement home who performed in drag shows on the weekends. I also commend DeFino for writing about elderly characters and their feelings in the present, as opposed to letting them constantly slip into reminisces and memories. These memories are infused into and influence their experiences and perceptions in the home, but they feel fully realized and mature.
I said earlier that this book was a joyful read, and it was. It can be tempting to get bogged down by the details of backstories, but I think that if you don’t, and simply enjoy and experience the characters and their journeys as they are, it is a delightful book. If you don’t believe that writers can be so inspired that they can’t help the words just tumbling out of them, I would pass. There is a lot of that here. But if you love inspiration and romance, not just the kind between lovers but between friends and even writers and their muses, I would certainly say to pick it up!