Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Swedish / American Charm: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

Author Katarina Bivald. (Photo by Cecilia Bivald)

I don’t usually read books that are designated ‘chick lit’, but I will admit the distinction is an arbitrary one on my part. (I don’t avoid movies labeled 'chick flicks' and don’t, in fact, recognize that distinction. A good movie is a good movie, so why segregate films or books by the supposed gender they are aimed for?) However, I’ve had such a bad run on my reading this year, including the disappointments of Dan Simmons’ sloppily and badly written Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Fifth Heart and Richard Price’s new novel The Whites, written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt and much more conventional than his understated, original masterpieces Clockers, Samaritan and Lush Life. Thus, when my bookstore co-worker, Claire, whose opinion I respect, mentioned in passing that Katarina Bivald’s debut novel The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Vintage Publishing) was worth my time, I decided to give it a try. The result was, as the publicists would phrase it, a decidedly good read.

Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies, this charming novel begins as a mousy 28-year-old Swedish woman named Sara Lindqvist lands in an Iowa town called Hope, expecting to be met by her book-loving pen pal (of two years) Amy Harris, who is to take her on to her own town of Broken Wheel, which – unlike the larger Hope – is too small to have a transit connection from the greater United States. To her shock and dismay, Sara soon finds out that 65-year-old Amy has died and she has arrived just after the funeral. With a three month visa and having just lost her job when the bookstore she worked at in her small Swedish town closed, Sara is at a loss what to do. But the townsfolk of Broken Wheel step into the breach and deposit Sara in Amy’s house and resolve, like all fine hosts, to endeavour to take good care of their guest. Determined to repay their kindness – she’s not allowed to pay for anything, including food and drinks – Sara hits on the idea of opening a bookstore, on the abandoned premises of a business Amy’s late husband once ran, and stocked, mostly, with the books from Amy’s vast and varied collection. Sara, who has always claimed to like books more than people and who, until her visit to Broken Wheel, has never taken a chance in life, is certain that every single resident of Broken Wheel can be persuaded to read. While that doesn’t turn out to be true – even as she turns on some residents of the town to the joy of reading – her decision has positive ramifications for Broken Wheel as a whole and her own personal life in particular.

Pleasingly, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend avoids all stereotypes, Swedish or American. (There’s a great gag about Sara sending Amy a copy of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which the latter enjoys but whose violent and sex-laden depiction of Sweden is as far removed from Sara’s hometown of Haninge as Broken Wheel itself.) Broken Wheel is a small town that has fully accepted Andy and Carl, the gay couple who run the town’s bar The Square, because, after all Andy is from Broken Wheel and thus one of them. The same goes for local hardware store owner John, Amy’s good friend, and the only black person in Broken Wheel. When Amy tries to rile him up about the ongoing racism in America, he shrugs it off, insisting that Broken Wheel has been far better to him that his home state of Alabama ever was. (Much of this info is gleaned by Sara, from Amy’s prosaic letters to her, interspersed throughout the novel, leaving her feeling like she knew the town’s’ residents before she ever set foot in the place.) I suspect this broadmindedness on the part of the folks of Broken Wheel is as authentic as any hate-filled novelistic portrayal of a provincial Midwestern American town. The U.S. is a complex, not easily pigeon-holed country after all, as witness the recent surge in support for gay marriage among the populace.

The book’s many characters, though, are its main selling point. They’re all of interest and nuanced, including Jen, the bubbly housewife who puts out the town’s (barely read) newsletter; taciturn (and handsome) Tom, Amy’s nephew, who’s a bit of a martyr when it comes to Broken Wheel; George, who struggles to keep sober in the wake of his wife’s leaving him and taking their child with them – Sophie was actually from another man but George, who was tricked into marriage by her mother Michelle, found new purpose raising her – and, most especially, Caroline, the prim and proper church-going woman who begins, to her mind, a scandalous affair, late in life. (She’s only 44, but feels like she’s completely over the hill.) There’s also William Christopher, the town’s ineffectual, sweet priest, who, not coincidentally, I’m sure, shares the same name as the actor who played the similarly depicted Father Mulcahy in TV’s M*A*S*H. (For the most part, Bivaldi's depictions of Americans felt believable, though I’m still not sure how anyone who owned a business in Broken Wheel managed to stay open, even if the prices in mercurial Grace’s diner were so low.) Sara, too, is fascinating, as she discovers things about herself she never realized and comes, slowly, to the conclusion that maybe real life can be as richly rewarding as any novel or short story she’s ever read, where anything can and usually does happen. Even the unidentified folks of snooty Hope, Iowa, are cast well, recognized as rich, comparatively well dressed types who drive big cars and stop for the town’s only traffic light. (There’s a poignant undercurrent in the novel relating to the vagaries of the American economy which has decimated so many towns just like Broken Wheel. )

Hovering above them all is the spirit and influence of Amy herself, who affected them all in her own quiet, unobtrusive way, most poignantly in her quasi-relationship with John, which, for various reasons, was not quite what it should have been. At first, I considered Amy’s taste in books, ranging from Joyce Carol Oates, her favourite author, and Philip Roth to Dan Brown and John Grisham, as well as a whole heap of the Bronte’s output, and Louise May Alcott (the first writer she sent to Sara) to be merely Bivald’s bid to attract all manner of readers, from all demographics. (The quirky small-town set Fried Green Tomatoes aptly pops up, too, on Sara's reading list.) But upon further reflection, it’s clear that Amy, like Sara, just loved books of all sorts. A librarian in Montreal, where I grew up, once opined that she would not carry Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy books in her library because they were ‘trash’. But the very first book I remember reading, when I was home with the chicken pox, was The Shore Road Mystery (Hardy Boys #6). And I have since gone on to read far and wide. After five years working in bookstores, I have come to the conclusion that reading anything is better than not reading at all. Bivald, herself, also worked in a small bookstore and thus gets its details, from the crappy bookshelves to its customers' very specific, often strange, tastes, exactly right.

I was thoroughly engrossed in the goings-on in Broken Wheel and rooting for its characters to find the happiness they deserved. (It’s not a spoiler to say that they do but The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, through Sara’s musings, was always about attaining that happy ending so it doesn’t feel like a cheat or cop-out at all.) The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend would be considered a classic summer read, except that term usually denotes mindless, disposable fare. The novel does have the escapist elements of any good beach read, but it’s hardly a stupid book. Granted, it’s not great or challenging literature but it’s a thoughtful and sweet novel that will make you chuckle and touch you, too. Sometimes that’s just enough.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

No comments:

Post a Comment