There is nothing but cozy feelings in Freya Sampson’s The Last Chance Library. It borders on the saccharine and pat (in the way of A Man Called Ove or The Hundred Year Old Man) but perhaps because its is also an ode to the library as essential public institution, or perhaps because the world is terrible and we all need the occasional reprieve, I enjoyed it.
The book opens with June, 27 years old and working as a library assistant in the tiny town of something that starts with a C. If you were drawing the plot arc of this book, alongside the character development it would go something like this: (1) June is timid/still lives in childhood home/can’t connect with others because of her grief (2) library is threatened with closure/June encounters man from childhood who also loves books and is incredibly kind/June is timid and now aware of how her grief and timidity are preventing her from living her life (3) a series of escalating moments of decision force June to take tiny steps to connect with others and to be brave and a series of obvious but nevertheless endearing obstacles get in the way of June dating the man (4) climax where we see June and the library get what we hope (5) very tidy ending.
The whole time you know exactly that everything is going to work out, and that all of the little challenges – will they get enough people to the protest? – are manageable and quaint and so even if somehow things go wrong… nothing will explode. Identity, politics, the fate of the world, none of them are implicated here. Just… will the library be saved, will June move on in her life, and the whole time we all know: yes, just the question of how.
I shouldn’t say politics aren’t involved at all. The library is threatened because of government spending cuts, and part of the argument the townspeople mount is how the library is the one remaining space where people of all ages and backgrounds can come for a safe place to be, to connect with one another and to receive service and care. And to use the washroom and get out of the heat or cold. I appreciated the way the book tried to figure out what it was that makes libraries so special – is it the place, or the people, or the librarians, or the programs, or the books, or the history – but ultimately allows that it has to be all of those things, and that we will each have special resonance with the library.
I do love the library. And if nothing else this book reminded me not to take it for granted. But mostly, it reminded me – as I’ve always known and still forget – that beyond baking shows, I can also be soothed by a completely gentle and utterly enjoyable book.