Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious
‘The world is simply overflowing with Happy Endings, Sara thought [...] She would marry Broken Wheel. And they would live happily ever after.’ These final sentences in Katarina Bivald’s clever first novel also just about sum it up.
Mystified? It will begin to make sense if you know that Broken Wheel is a small town and that a significant proportion of the townspeople has been made more thoughtful and even happier than they were because Sara has persuaded them to read books. And you will have grasped the essentials of the plot if you know that the Broken Wheelers learnt to care very much for the quiet, bookish girl from Sweden, who arrived among them alone – though invited by a favourite fellow citizen and accompanied by a suitcase full of books – and that they finally united to bully Tom, the taciturn man Sara loves, to see sense by involving him in a collective proposal to Sara.
Läsarna... is a book with a message, but its romance is feather-light. Amy, Sara’s prospective host and a book-lover, too, dies but Sara agrees to stay for the three months her visa allows. Broken Wheel is a recession-struck place in Iowa with little to be proud of until Sara stirs up mild notoriety by opening its first ever bookshop. Her mission, pursued with persistence and ingenuity, is to convert the locals to the pleasures and rewards of reading. Sara is a believer: she believes passionately in the power of books.
The author escapes becoming too serious by writing up Broken Wheel’s eccentricities and strange love affairs, but Sara is clearly Bivald’s spokesperson: ‘She had always hoped that at least someone like Jane [Austen] could have looked at life going on around her and told herself: “I can create a better world than this” or, anyway “You, dear Sir, are a complete bore, but you will do very nicely for my next book.”’
And what the writer creates, the attentive reader adds to his or her life in some form or another. It doesn’t have to be high literature. A young girl reunites with her father once she has found that the adventures in Eragon are also about the young and troubled. A lonely woman finds that reading gay erotica makes it easier for her to accept being in love with a bisexual man. Books teach you about real things, even if obliquely.
Katarina Bivald knows exactly what she is doing: the lightness of touch helps the thoughtful passages go down and the message is driven home with references to other books about reading. Including some of Amy’s letters to Sara allows references to 84, Charing Cross Road – ‘one of the most charming books ever published since Guernsey’s Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ – and Sara’s habit of making lists of titles and ordering them on her shelves is very educational.
Readable, witty, earnest and endearingly silly at times, and all about books: no wonder publishers have fallen in love with Läsarna... By the way, Sara and Tom do get it together, even though Tom prefers country & western music to books.