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Katerina Bivald paints excellent pictures of her characters. I found them wholly believable, recognisable in many cases and drawn with insight and compassion. Even some of those who would be hard to like in real life are generally pictured with understanding and often with wit. She also draws an evocative picture of a small farming town dying as a result of economic hardship and the rise of conglomerates driving family farms out of business and people away from the area – and of hope that it can be saved. These aspects gave the book a real base of thought on which to build what is essentially a feel-good Romantic Comedy.
Bivald is also excellent on the pleasures and effects of books on the people who read them. There are elements of 84 Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society and others here – and Bivald neatly makes reference to them with a lovely light touch to let you know that she knows what she's doing. She does this very cleverly and subtly with other books, too; some time after finishing the book I suddenly realised that her early references to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre weren't coincidental, for example. It's beautifully done.
The book is extremely readable – for which translator Alice Menzies deserves immense credit, too, because she has done a superb job. I found myself utterly captivated, quite often laughing out loud (especially later in the book where humour based on established characters we now know well really comes into its own) and also enjoying both the insights into character and the occasional bit of homespun wisdom, like, "I think that life and sorrow go together like farmers and rain: without a little, nothing will grow."
I'm not that easily charmed these days but I found this book a complete delight. I can recommend it very warmly.
(I received an ARC via Netgalley.)
Swedish author Katarina Bivald brings us The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, her first novel to be published in the United States, and it starts with promise. Sara, a mousy former bookstore employee from Sweden, arrives in the tiny, hard-luck town of Broken Wheel, Iowa to meet and visit with her pen pal, Amy, an elderly resident of this little burg. Amy and Sara have bonded over books during their two-year correspondence, but Sara hits town only to learn that Amy’s funeral has just ended. She wonders if she should just return home, having unknowingly walked into a disaster after all, but the occupants of Broken Wheel convince her to stay for a bit. As Sara herself thinks, “As long as she had books and money, nothing could be a catastrophe.” I agree with this philosophy wholeheartedly, if I do say so myself.
In an effort to ingratiate herself with the townspeople and to get these folks to read (it seems that none of them do), she decides to open a bookshop with Amy’s books as inventory. Slowly, Sara develops friendships with several of Broken Wheel’s oddball citizens: George, the reticent but well-meaning alcoholic; Jen, a busybody housewife and determined matchmaker; Grace, the opinionated proprietor of the local greasy spoon; Caroline, a younger, steelier version of the Church Lady; and Tom, the strong, silent-type subject of Jen’s matchmaking attempts.
We learn about the town and its denizens through Sara’s direct relationships with them, and through Amy’s letters to Sara, which function as flashbacks of a sort. It’s in these letters that the book came alive for me, and I looked forward to the appearance of each one for Amy’s books recommendations. Sara also pushes her favorites: “She had sold countless copies of Terry Pratchett’s books before, only a few years ago, she had given in and read one of them, making the acquaintance of one of the most fantastic, and definitely most reliable, authors you could ever hope to find.” She had me at Terry Pratchett.
And she continued to have me through the first two-thirds of the book or so. But as more and more time passed in Broken Wheel, and as the situation in which Sara finds herself became a little less plausible, the hold the book had on me began to slip. The literary references dwindled and the focus became the wacky marriage plot cooked up by Sara’s newfound friends so that she can outstay her tourist visa. The subsequent, over-the-top events seemed a bit of a contrivance to me, although I suppose something similar could conceivably take place in small-town America. At this point, I felt like the novel somewhat lost its way and couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be book lit, chick-lit, contemporary women’s lit, some kind of cozy, or a straight-up romance (and we all know I don’t do romance).
If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned genres, then don’t let my disappointment with the latter part of the book keep you from checking it out. It’s a light-hearted, whimsical read that I’m sure will appeal greatly to women of all stripes and book clubs across the country. I enjoyed it enough to give it three stars on the Amazon scale (3.5 on my own personal scale), meaning I liked it just fine but I didn’t absolutely love it.
Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by SOURCEBOOKS Landmark via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.