The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, by Katarina Bivald (2013, 2016)

The Readers of Broken Wheel RecommendThis is a book for booklovers. A book about books, in the vein of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or 84, Charing Cross Road. Sara Lindqvist is a self-described mousy-haired bookshop clerk from Sweden. She has been exchanging letters for some two and a half years with Amy Harris, who lives in the downtrodden and tiny town of Broken Wheel, Iowa. When the bookshop closes and Sara finds herself out of a job and with plenty of time on her hands, she accepts Amy’s offer of a place to stay, and makes the voyage with intentions of spending her days chatting about books and life with her pen pal. Alas, she arrives to discover that Amy was in fact quite ill, and has passed away. Despite this turn of events, the generous folk of Broken Wheel insist she stay in Amy’s house – it’s empty, after all, and it’s what Amy would have wanted. Slowly, Sara gets to know the residents Amy has described in her letters – the recovered alcoholic George who drives Sara anywhere she needs to go, rebel Grace who runs the diner, grieving John, the handsome gay bar owner Carl and his partner John, the stalwart Christian Caroline, and Amy’s taciturn and good-looking nephew Tom, among others. In turn, they struggle to understand the tourist, as they call Sara. Why in heaven’s name did she come to Broken Wheel? Why is she always with her nose in a book? When no one accepts Sara’s money for anything, and decline her offers to “help out,” she decides to open a bookshop seeded with Amy’s vast book collection, and give the town the gift of reading. Translator Alice Menzies does a brilliant job of rendering Bivald’s novel, originally published in Swedish. I particularly enjoyed how Bivald advanced the storyline with Amy’s letters, presented in chronological order and sprinkled throughout the text. The letters themselves were nuggets of delight: in describing the indomitable Mrs Rohde, Amy recounts the time Mr Rohde lost the family home in a game of poker. “Only he never dared tell Mrs Rohde. The man who’d won didn’t either.” (p. 143). I know I said it’s a book about books, and it’s true. Amy’s and Sara’s taste range from classics like Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl and To Kill a Mockingbird to more modern choices like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and pretty much everything in between (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe and Eragon). One caveat – if you don’t know how these stories end, the book is filled with spoilers. But in addition to celebrating books, this is a story about people. Bivald skilfully develops her characters as good-hearted souls with a few flaws – just the story of people you’d enjoy spending your evenings with. The romance gets a bit thick at times, putting this decidedly in the chick-lit genre, but overall it’s a gentle, heart-warming and charming small-town story of love, books, and friendship overcoming even the most conscientious government worker in the state. My thanks to the publisher for the advance reading copy through NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.
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