Tuesday, December 29, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’m a sucker for novels about books and book lovers. If there is an epistolary component to the novel, even better. So I was excited to get hold of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald. This novel contains all the necessary elements. There is a protagonist who works in/owns a bookstore and who is more comfortable in fictional worlds than the real one. She has read widely and so much that she can match the perfect book to sometimes unlikely readers with uncanny success. There are a host of quirky secondary characters with their own problems who are, initially, not readers. However, when introduced to the protagonist’s world view, they find their own lives are enriched, even if their problems are not necessarily solved. And there is a love interest who appreciates the protagonist on her own terms.

The protagonist, Sara Lindqvist, is a young Swedish woman who worked as a clerk in a small bookstore until it closed. She had struck up a correspondence and book exchange with an older American woman, Amy, who lived in the tiny town of Broken Wheel, Iowa. Unbeknownst to Sara, Amy was quite ill. Amy invited Sara to visit, and finding herself with nothing else pressing to do, Sara decides she needs an adventure. She will go to Broken Wheel and meet her friend, as well as all the people Amy has told her so much about. However, when Sara reaches Broken Wheel, she is shocked and dismayed to learn that Amy has just died.

The townspeople rally around their visitor, knowing that this is what the much beloved Amy would want. Sara finds herself lodged and fed, visited by Amy’s friends, and comforted by Amy’s vast collection of books. But Sara needs something to do. When she learns that no one else in Broken Wheel reads, she decides to open a bookstore, even though that is technically a violation of the provisions of her visa.

As she slowly becomes part of the community, she is drawn to Tom, a rather withdrawn and world-weary man who, being handsome and single, is a source of interest to the busybodies of Broken Wheel. They have already decided to pair him with Sara. This causes them both a good deal of embarrassment. Nevertheless, something clicks between them.

Sara is such a sweet character, despite her initial lack of social graces, that the town falls in love with her, with her store, and eventually, with reading. But tragedy is looming: Sara’s visa is about to expire. Can the town find a way to keep her?

Initially published in 2013 in Swedish and translated by Alice Menzies, the novel starts a bit slowly and clunkily, which is something I’ve found in a couple of contemporary translations. But it doesn’t take long for the story to catch hold. (I stayed up way too late on a work night to finish it!) It doesn’t seem very true-to-life; the characters are more types than real individuals, but it has a lovely fairy-tale quality to it. The small town inhabitants are salt-of-the-earth people. Even the outsiders who play the roles of bad guys are not so bad. Conflict comes in the form of the slow death of small town America and the disappearing habit of reading. Rediscovering the joy of books highlights the best qualities in these neighborly folks, and helps to breathe life back into Broken Wheel. For all fans of books about books, this is highly recommended.