Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Book Review: How Can I Help You

By Jami Denison

Those of us who love books often have a fantasy about working in a library. That unique scent of coffee, chocolate, and old paper that permeates the building! The soothing quiet swooshes of pages turning and murmured conversations! And, everywhere, books! Unfortunately, that fantasy is dispelled by the reality that working at a library—or anywhere, really—is about working with people. And people can be messy. Quite messy.

Laura Sims, a poet and novelist who also works as a part-time reference librarian, knows these messes. She’s placed her second book, How Can I Help You, in a small community library in tiny Carlyle, Illinois. There, clerk Margo deals with annoying patrons such as the woman who won’t return her books or pay her fines and the man who watches porn. Perhaps these patrons would behave better if they knew Margo was really Jane, a nurse on the run from her killer past. When Patricia, a failed novelist escaping a suffocating boyfriend in Chicago, takes a job as a reference librarian, Margo is immediately wary—Patricia reminds her of the charge nurse who turned her in. But Margo lets her guard down just enough to pique Patricia’s writerly interest. From that point, things unfold in unpredictable ways.

The book is told from both women’s first-person points of view. While Margo kicks off the action, the character doesn’t have the self-awareness that really allows readers to understand and root for her. There’s mention of a fire in her past that killed her mother and stepfather; hints that she set the fire, but the root of her murderous impulses remains unexamined. She also comes across as annoying, so I found myself hoping she’d get caught. 

Patricia, on the other hand, has the disappointment of a failed book and a boring boyfriend that make her a more universal character. Even though she’s new to Carlyle, she already feels trapped, passing on that claustrophobic feeling to the reader. As she starts to figure out Margo’s secret, it energizes her and gets the book moving. 

Sims is a clever writer, and she sets up coincidences and then takes a sharp turn rather than following through with those set-ups. I was surprised when plot points I’d predicted did not pan out. The ending is totally gratifying and completely earned. It’s a short book (I clocked in at two hours) and fast-paced, a perfect travel companion.

How Can I Help You is a return to the stereotypical librarian—the older woman in glasses wearing an austere look, a vague threat of severe punishment if a person laughs too loudly. Nurses, librarians, waitresses, and others in the service profession—primarily women—are routinely ignored and often treated poorly. This book may be fiction, but it’s a good reminder to pay attention to the people in these roles. They’re human, too. And someday, they might just have enough. 

Thanks to Putnam for the book in exchange for an honest review.

Also by Laura Sims:

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