Despite the vast numbers of new titles published each year, it can be tough to find an author you can confidently come back to again and again, sure that you’re going to devour each of her offerings. For me, this author is Katherine Reay.
Reay’s first novel was published in 2013, and since then, she has published a new classic-literature-infused novel nearly every year. In each of her stories, we meet a contemporary woman (or three) who are looking for purpose and direction, for love and forgiveness, for happiness and stability. Every protagonist has her own battles to fight, but each is relatable and great fun to read.
With titles like Dear Mr. Knightley, Lizzy & Jane, and The Austen Escape, it’s obvious that Reay admires the work of Jane Austen. When I asked her about her inspiration, she told me that when she wrote the first of these, “I was Austen-focused. . . . I had been injured just prior to writing it and found Austen to be my go-to recovery author. It was a natural extension to find that heroine doing the same.”
I probably don’t qualify as a true “Janeite”; I haven’t read everything she’s written (though I have read Pride and Prejudice twice and started on the zombie-infused adaptation). But Reay’s attraction to Austen’s characters and conflicts is still a draw for me. At the root of both Austen’s and Reay’s stories are an understanding of human nature, a willingness to confront weaknesses, and the hope that relationships and internal transformation are possible.
My first encounter with Reay’s novels was with her second book, Lizzy & Jane, which translates themes and characters from Pride and Prejudice into a contemporary story filled with food and family, taking place in the Pacific Northwest. With this novel, Reay broadened her literary allusions to include Hemingway. “What speaks to one person, as a connection point, does not necessarily speak to another,” Reay told me. “So with my [second] story, Lizzy & Jane, I expanded that conversation to Hemingway. His writing informed the hero in that story—and it went on from there.”
If it’s not the Pacific Northwest, it’s Chicago, a delightful Illinois suburb, Italy, or the English countryside. Her novels are like an escape from my own reality, but not in a fashion that has me coming away from the pages feeling my life is lacking in some way. Rather, I find myself more greatly appreciating the place I’m in, the people I get to spend my time with, and the work I do.
Another trademark of Reay’s work is the way she uses a character’s profession to comment on her internal conflict. She explains to me that one of her favorite things about writing is “saying something very specific about a character by the job she does.” For example, “Lizzy [in Lizzy & Jane] is a chef who lost her very relational gift of cooking. Well, she’d lost connection and love long before that. And Emily [in A Portrait of Emily Price] had the heart of an artist, but didn’t risk and take her restoration work that one step more until she let love and beauty into her life. Madeline, in The Printed Letter Bookshop, picked a ‘safe’ career that didn’t hold her heart, and isolated her, until she found a way to love the law and those around her in the book shop.”
In her latest novel—Of Literature and Lattes, published just last month—Reay more directly honors the power of story to inspire and heal. The book is in some ways a sequel to her last novel, The Printed Letter Bookshop, building on those characters and exploring more of their community. At the same time, by introducing new characters and conflicts, it stands as a story on its own. The circumstances are timely, but the emotional experiences of the characters are as timeless as those in the classic stories that maintain their power today.
“Stories are incredibly powerful. Fiction is incredibly powerful,” says Reay. “We let it in through the chinks in our armor in ways that many other people, things, and ideas can’t penetrate. We appropriate stories, live within them, and experience new ideas and emotions while reading them. By calling that out, in many ways, I’m almost hitting the secret on the nose and saying ‘Look here, stories have been here to help you all along’ and, of course I’m always secretly saying, ‘rest here, read, and enjoy.’”
Such a sense of joy and renewal is a rare, but valuable gift. What’s more, I’d venture to say it’s essential to a fully human life, and for this bibliophile, a great help in continuing to become the woman I’m meant to be.