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Friday, January 1, 2016

Today's New Release: "The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend" by Katarina Bivald

3 Stars
Sara Lindqvist leaves Sweden to spend three months in Broken Wheel, Iowa, with Amy Harris, a woman with whom she has bonded over books.  Unfortunately, when Sara arrives, she discovers that Amy has died.  The people in the community take her under their care, and to pay them back, Amy starts a bookstore.  Her goal is to convert the locals into a community of readers.

I’m a bibliophile so I’m a sucker for books about books so this was one I couldn’t resist.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t as enthralled as I would have wished.  The book turns out to be more chick-lit romance, a genre that does not appeal to me.  It has been compared to 84, Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, but it does not match the quality of these.  The many literary allusions are interesting, but they alone cannot mask the flaws.

Characterization is not always strong.  Sara is a lonely young woman who likes books more than people, but she becomes someone whom everyone in Broken Wheel loves?  Many of the minor characters are not differentiated.  There are a number of small town eccentrics, but most are really stereotypes:  the tall, handsome eligible bachelor, a recovering alcoholic, a prim and proper churchgoer, the town busybody.  Other than George and Caroline, the minor characters lack depth.  Even the male love interest is bland.  And everyone in the town is so generous and big-hearted? 
Early on, Sara argues that “’[Books are] meant to be better than reality . . . Bigger, funnier, more beautiful, more tragic, more romantic.’”  This seems to be the author’s view because the book is not really realistic.  In fact, some suspension of disbelief is required.  A woman has died and the community just lets a visitor from a foreign country live in the home of the deceased?  Then this visitor is allowed to take the books from the house and sell them in a bookstore?  After a death, there’s usually a will to be processed, a will which provides for the distribution of the property of the deceased.  In the book everything just seems to happen in a vacuum. 

Interspersed throughout the novel are Amy’s letters to Sara over the years.  These epistles develop Amy’s character.  She has the most memorable lines in the book:  “For me, terrorism is still the image of white men, people active in society, standing over the charcoaled, lynched body of a black man and looking pleased with their work.” 

But much is left unexplained.  It seems that the two women have been pen pals for years, but how they came to correspond is never detailed.  Would it really be necessary for Amy to send books all the way to Sweden?  Sara would have easy access to books online so she would hardly need to rely on an American to send her books.  And Sara is so perfectly fluent in English that English books present no difficulties? 

In terms of plot, the book dragged at times.  This feeling was intensified by the fact that the plot is predictable.  The reader knows that everything will work out in the end.  Sara comments on feel-good books:  “Feel-good books were ones you could put down with a smile on your face, books that made you think the world was a little crazier, stranger, and more beautiful when you looked up from them.”
Clearly the author intended this to be one of those books, but how can a reader feel good about the world if the world in the book is “better than reality”?

This book will be described as a charming, easy read.  And, yes, it is.  But I prefer books which have a bit more substance.  How about a bit less romance and a bit more illustration of the impact of books?  After all, Sara’s merely giving books to people hardly proves that these books have real influence on their lives.  In fact, the people (hardly readers) of Broken Wheel never recommend any books they’ve actually read, so I hesitate to recommend this book except as book candy:  sweet but lacking in nutrition.