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Katarina Bivald – The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

June 25, 2017

31. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald, translated by Alice Menzies (2013; translation 2015)

Length: 402 pages
Genre: General Fiction

Started: 19 June 2016
Finished: 22 June 2016

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? This month’s selection for one of my book clubs.

What is a Swedish
tourist going to do in a
tiny Midwest town?

Summary: Sara Lindquist has always preferred books to real life, and in consequence, while she’s traveled to countless worlds in her reading, she hasn’t done much in real life. When the bookshop she works at closes, she finally decides to do something big – she’s going to travel from her city in Sweden to the tiny town of Broken Wheel, Iowa, to stay with Amy, a fellow booklover with whom Sara’s been corresponding. However, upon arrival in Broken Wheel, she learns that Amy has recently passed away, and no one is entirely sure what to do with her. Broken Wheel is not a town that gets many – or any – tourists, and after the recent economic downturn, the town itself seems to be dying… and worse, no one in the town cares about books the way that Sara does. It’s not exactly an ideal vacation destination, but as Sara slowly starts to get to know the inhabitants of the town – in person, that is; she’d seen them all through Amy’s eyes via their correspondence – she starts to see Broken Wheel as somewhere she could belong, and somewhere she could have something to contribute. But will the town be as accepting of her?

Review: This is one of those books for people who love books that always feel a little bit like they’re pandering to me (Hey, you like reading? Here’s a book all about how wonderful reading is! You should read it!) but that also are generally pretty effective in their pandering, because I DO like reading, damn it. There were elements of this I really liked, but also some elements that didn’t entirely work for me. The parts I liked primarily revolved around the secondary characters. Bivald populates the town of Broken Wheel with stock characters – the uptight religious lady, the brash and outspoken diner owner, the broken-spirited recovering alcoholic, the gossipy old ladies, the woman who got pregnant as a teenager, etc. – but then turns them into multidimensional people. I wound up liking most of the supporting characters as much as I liked Sara, and I actually cared about their storylines (which were surprisingly well developed, given their number and the relative size of the book) more than I cared about Sara’s. Once of Sara’s talents is putting the right book in the hands of the right reader, and I really enjoyed seeing which book she picked for each of the people of Broken Wheel, and how it changed them — to me, that’s really where the emotional core of the story lived.

However, this book is not content to just have the story be about Sara and the town as a whole — there has to be a romantic element as well. In this case, it’s Tom, who is bullied into marrying Sara so she can stay in the country, but actually really does have feelings for her, but won’t admit them out loud (feelings which are requited, but Sara’s not the vocal sort, either.) This is the part of the story that didn’t really work for me, mostly because I could never quite get a handle on Tom as a character. He’s so stolid and reserved, but it never made sense to me why. Sara doesn’t speak up because she’s shy and inexperienced at real life relationships, but we never find out exactly what Tom’s baggage is that makes him act the way he does. (I suspect that baggage is full of Narrative Convenience, though.) As such, it was hard for me to root for them as a couple or see Tom as a romantic lead, which made that entire storyline fall flat. The ending also felt overly easy, almost to the point of being pat, where the only thing that kept it from being a typical rom-com movie ending was the jaunty music montage followed by swelling strings at the end.

This book was originally written in Swedish, and I thought the translation was excellent. I didn’t realize until I was a substantial way in that it wasn’t originally written in English, which is exactly what you want a translation to be. Once I realized that Bivald was Swedish, though, a number of things clicked into place. For example, while Broken Wheel is essentially an idealized version of a dying small town. You’ve got everyone having known everyone for forever, and people holding grudges for generations, and everyone knowing everyone’s business while trying to hide their own troubles, etc. – that all felt real. But other than that, it seemed like Broken Wheel is the type of small town that exists only in movies and books like this one. Bivald’s got a fascination with economics (something that I also noticed in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo books, so maybe it’s a Swedish thing?), specifically the sharing economy of a small town. And while I don’t deny that that kind of mentality exists in a small town, I don’t think it’s as pervasive or as much of a cure-all as Bivald seems to think it is. I mean, giving away books and jars of preserves and getting a free beer on the house is fine and all, but someone still has to pay the electric bill, but those kinds of reality don’t fit the story, and so aren’t included.

On the whole, though, I did enjoy this book. I was willing to suspend my disbelief and just give in and be charmed by Broken Wheel and its inhabitants and the books they didn’t know they needed, and while not every element of the story worked and I thought the ending was a little silly, overall I enjoyed the ride. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This reminded me a LOT of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, especially in the “the right book to teach the right life lesson to the right person at the right time” angle. (Although, that said, are there books about people who love books where one of those people doesn’t own a bookstore? Not everyone who loves books can own a bookstore! That is not a viable economic model!) If you like books about books, and/or romantic comedies about small towns, or if you just need a charming summer read with a happy (if not terribly realistic) ending, then this book is worth a shot.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Confessions of a Book Habitué, That’s What She Read, Word By Word, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2017 3:53 pm

    This book was huge at BEA two years ago and I still haven’t read it because it sounded a little cliched to me. It sounds like it all works pretty good, though. I’m glad to see the translation is done so well.

    • June 25, 2017 5:05 pm

      It was a little cliched, yeah. But in a comforting, familiar kind of way, if that makes sense.

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