New York Times bestselling author Abbi Waxman recently released her third novel, “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill.” The titular protagonist — Nina Lee Hill — is the only child of a father she never knew and a globetrotting mother who left her to be raised by a nanny. Now 29 years old, Nina has a nice little apartment where she loves to stay in and read books with her judgmental cat, Phil. She has a good job at an independent bookstore, and her idea of a fun night out is playing trivia with her friends at a local bar. Nina loves her quiet, routine life.
But life doesn’t always go as planned, and Nina gets the shock of a lifetime when she finds out that the father she never knew about has died, she’s in his will and she has a giant family who wants to meet her. And of course, now is when her cute trivia nemesis, Tom, decides to show an interest in her.
At first glance, the synopsis of the book doesn’t stand out on the bookshelf and it seems like any other contemporary novel at the bookstore, but there is much more to “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill” than first meets the eye. Because of the way that Waxman realistically writes about mental illness, this book has joined the ranks of “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman and “Where’d You Go Bernadette” by Maria Semple.
Anxiety, the Anti-Superpower
Nina is the kind of character that many readers can connect with. She’s an introvert. She has conversations with her cat, Phil. She loves to read. She has a vast knowledge of trivia facts stored in her brain. She can usually find an excuse to put off exercising until tomorrow. But it’s readers who struggle with anxiety who will identify with Nina more than anyone else. Readers who have anxiety will be able to connect with the ways that Nina deals with the many crazy new circumstances in her life.
Nina is a structured but happy person who has turned out completely unlike her carefree, jet-setting mother. She describes herself as an introvert, but for Nina, it goes past just being reserved. She has anxiety, and people make her especially anxious. It’s only when Nina is alone that she can mentally refuel.
Until recently, Nina’s life had been going pretty well. This is partially because she loves keeping a tight schedule, with time set aside each morning for reviewing her planner, and every Thursday night, she has a time set aside for the sole purpose of reading. Nina says at one point, “Even in the most organized life there is room for whimsy. It just needs scheduling.”
When all of these new people enter her life in the form of a huge and complicated family, it throws off Nina’s routine and sets off her anxiety like never before.
Throughout “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill,” Nina has panic attacks. She gets lonely and worries that her anxiety will make the people she cares about walk out of her life. She feels overwhelmed by existence, and because of her anxiety, she pushes away the ones who love her and want to help her.
And even though Nina loves organizing her life, if you struggle with anxiety, you might identify with the fact that it is her anxiety making her feel the need to rigidly plan things out ahead of time, and that’s what makes it difficult for her to be spontaneous.
In “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill,” Waxman captures what it’s like to struggle with anxiety, in daily life and in social settings. She captures what it feels like to have your mind and body working against you, describing anxiety as an anti-superpower similar to Bruce Banner when he turns into the Hulk, because it comes out, unwelcome, during a crisis. She writes, “The Hulk gets angry; Nina got anxious.”
It’s Okay Not to be Okay
The plot of “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill” is a fun story with a cast of charming characters, like Peter Reynolds, Nina’s older nephew that shares her love for organization, and Tom, the trivia nemesis that Nina thought was “dumb as a stump” but has turned out to be pretty interesting.
There’s also Nina’s father, who died before the book started, but through meeting each member of Nina’s family and hearing about him from different perspectives, turns out to be a very important character.
But it’s not the fun plot or the many endearing characters that make “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill” so relatable. After all, most people reading the novel haven’t been written into an amazing will by an unknown but very rich family member.
What makes “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill” so relevant is seeing how anxiety can influence such a well-rounded person’s life. Nina is a funny and enjoyable character who has everything going for her, but she also has anxiety, and that’s okay.
Certain people in Nina’s life struggle to understand her mental illness, which is something that many readers with similar issues will have experience with. But everyone supports Nina, and no one tries to “fix” her. In “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill,” readers will find acceptance. Nina’s anxiety isn’t cured by the end of the book. Waxman makes it clear that it’s okay not to be okay.
It can be hard to come by books and media where you see anxiety and other mental illnesses accurately portrayed, which is why Waxman’s representation of mental illness in “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill” is easy to connect with in today’s world. It’s nice to see a character that you can identify with.