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HOW CAN I HELP YOU
by Laura Sims
Putnam, July 2023
256 pages
$27.00
ISBN: 059354370X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Margo Finch arrives at the Carlyle Public Library looking for a job at just the moment that a new librarian is needed. She says all the right things, has the right demeanor, and her resume looks good. She's hired on the spot and seems the ideal librarian, although she doesn't actually read anything herself. She has patience for the homeless and other odd characters who frequent the library and is able to manage them so well that the other librarians leave that job to her. She's prompt, neat, and spins stories that entertain the staff and patrons alike.

When she goes home at night, though, her thoughts are drawn back to her hidden previous life as a nurse who found ways to usher patients who were not quite ready into the hereafter. She found her own sort of solace in breathing in their last breaths, and she deeply misses that experience. Margo has developed means of subduing her longing for sharing those final breaths, and her job at the library helps her escape from her own compulsions.

Into this precarious balance arrives Patricia, a new library school graduate and failed writer, to fill the long-empty position of reference librarian. Patricia and Margo form a sort of friendship at first, which devolves into mutual obsession. Using clues from their conversations, Patricia uses her research skills to uncover Margo's secret past and suddenly, Patricia is feverishly writing again while Margo is being observed. Margo's compulsion to share those final breaths and Patricia's need to keep Margo safe so that she can continue writing about her combine to disastrous effect.

The deeply disturbed psyches of both Margo and Patricia are very well written and bring both characters to life. The remaining characters, librarians and patrons alike, fill necessary roles in the story rather than being fully developed. They are skillfully sketched, however, and allow the focus to remain upon the two librarians. The backwater locale that provides a hiding place for Margo and an escape from previous failure for Patricia is convincingly grim. The plot builds to a crescendo that pulls Margo and Patricia into a conflagration that decides ownership of the Margo/Patricia story.

A bit of suspension of disbelief is necessary to allow HOW CAN I HELP YOU the space to play out. Even a desperate library director is unlikely to have hired either Margo or Patricia, never mind both. It seems equally unlikely that two such deeply disturbed women would end up on the same small staff. Events throughout the book veer into the implausible, even given the compulsive, obsessive nature of these two women. Nonetheless, and perhaps even because of that implausibility, the book is highly entertaining.

Sharon Mensing, retired educational leader, lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors in Arizona.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, July 2023

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