Book Review of “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katrina Bivald.
Long ago, there were people like Selma Lagerlöf and Astrid Lindgren. More recently, we have the likes of Stieg Larsson, Fredrik Backman, Jonas Jonasson, and Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, among many others. All of these people are Swedish authors whose works are increasingly popular, not only in their original Swedish, but perhaps even more so in their English translations. While this is hardly an exhaustive list, I think we should now add Katrina Bivald.
This is precisely the type of writing and story I just adore – particularly when you feel immediately that nothing could possibly have been lost in translation. Bivald brings us this charming tale of Sara, the quiet, young Swedish bookworm, who befriends Amy, an old woman living in a tiny outpost in Iowa with whom she has been corresponding. When Sara’s job at her bookshop ends when the store closes, she decides to take Amy up on her offer to visit. However, when Sara arrives in Broken Wheel, the town seems all but deserted, because practically everyone is at Amy’s funeral. Normally, this would have ended the Sara’s visit, however normal isn’t a word that suits either Broken Wheel or Amy. Furthermore, no one in Broken Wheel wants “Amy’s Guest” to leave, and Sara doesn’t really want to go back to what’s left of her normal in Sweden just yet.
All this sets the stage perfectly for a lovely little romp, which Bivald intersperses with a carefully selected sampling of some of the charming letters that Amy wrote to Sara. Using this mechanic we get to hear from the deceased Amy, and get background on both the town and the woman without having some other character tell fill Sara in (which would have been ultimately boring). Since Sara knows so much about Broken Wheel through these letters, it isn’t at all unusual that she feels (somewhat) comfortable being around them. However, Bivald’s description of the uneasiness that Sara does feel, works perfectly with her shy character. That, of course, explains why the town warms to her so quickly. I would even go so far as to say that with this book, Bivald has orchestrated a lovely little dance between Sara, Amy’s memory and the town of Broken Wheel. For that, she can unashamedly take a well-deserved bow.
Essentially, this novel is something of an extended love story. Bivald shows us how the town loves Amy, how Sara loves books, how Amy and Sara care for each other, as well as how Sara and the town grow to love each other. With all this love bandying about, throwing a little romance into the works seems like a logical step. However, one of my problems with this story is that there are some slightly far-fetched aspects to some of the romances here. Yes, I did say “romances” – meaning more than one, and that is my other problem with this book – personally, a little romance can go a long way, and I think Bivald laid just a touch too much of that on here. Despite this, because Bivald writes such sympathetic characters, you can’t blame her too much for wanting them all to find true love. In truth, his only somewhat bothered me, and it certainly didn’t ruin the story for me; but I’m thinking that many male readers might not be as forgiving.
There is one other thing that I noticed about this novel, and it makes this book particularly unique. That is, the setting for this story. No, I’m not talking about an unknown, tiny Iowa town, but the fact that Bivald centered her story in the USA. From what I can see, her compatriots’ very successful translations all take place within their home country. Of course, these authors are just following the “write what you know” rule, and that’s perfectly fine. If the story is compelling enough, someone will translate it for a larger audience. Bivald, on the other hand, wrote a book that practically begged for an English translation, because all of the action takes place in America. Even if this was a marketing ploy, it doesn’t really matter because Bivald and her translator pull this off so nicely.
That’s why I’m saying that nothing was lost in translation here. Katrina Bivald brings us not only sympathetic characters and a sweet story, but she places it all in a setting that feels inviting, even if we’ve never set foot in the type of backwater that is Broken Wheel. The icing on the cake is what Sara gives to Broken Wheel that wins the townsfolk’s hearts. That, of course, you can probably guess from the title of the novel. All told, this is such a charming story, and so gently written, that if it didn’t have a touch too much romance, it would certainly have gotten a full five stars. As it is, I don’t think that foible was bad enough to make me mark it down by more than half a star, and I’m certain this book is a winner. Thank you for this, Ms. Bivald, and I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.
“The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katrina Bivald, published by Sourcebooks Landmark, US release date January 19, 2016 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Foyles, WHSmith, Waterstones, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and worldwide literacy) as well as from UK.Bookshop, Bookshop.org, or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an ARC of this book via NetGalley.