A set of warmhearted but practical Midwesterners welcomes a newcomer from overseas, and no sooner than you can say “Guernsey Potato-Peel Pie,” the visitor has been clasped to the town’s capacious bosom and become . . .
. . . a bookseller!
Here’s the first clue that Swedish novelist Katarina Bivald’s debut pays homage to familiar romances, cozies and travelogues. But her story is also charmingly original. Our heroine, Sara Lindqvist, leaves her safe Swedish home and her job in a bookstore to track down her American pen pal. Sara has been corresponding with Amy Harris, an older woman in Broken Wheel, Iowa, about literature and life. She convinces Sara that an overseas jaunt will lift the younger woman out of her rut.
However, when Sara arrives, she learns that Amy has died. There’s no reason for her to stay longer than a night — except that no one in town lets her pay for anything, from meals to drinks to transportation. And Amy’s large, light-filled bedroom is full of books: “Amy’s room was like [Sara’s] dream library. . . . She could see hundreds, maybe even thousands of books flickering in front of her as the room started spinning before her eyes.”
One of Bivald’s tricks is to focus on Sara’s immediate experience. When Sara imagines a bookshop in her new, if temporary, home town, it seems like a radical new idea — even if it may have been what Amy was planning all along.
Soon, Sara is presiding over a bright-yellow counter on the ground floor of Amy’s house, her very own fantasy bookstore. And she’s great at it. She has never met a reader she couldn’t match with a story: She wastes no time in hooking sad-sack George on Bridget Jones, hoochslinging Grace on Lisbeth Salander, and the town’s minister, William, on “The Little World of Don Camillo.”
Determined to keep their new muse in their midst, the citizens of this withering Iowa town concoct a harebrained scheme that threatens to undo all of the good feelings, camaraderie and, yes, commerce that Sara’s bookselling has engendered. In other words, the readers of Broken Wheel recommend a lot more than just books. Will their busybody advice result in a happy ending or a tragic parting?
But that crisis may be a red herring. Even though Amy is gone, we continue to read her old letters to Sara throughout the novel, and they include passages of quietly powerful wisdom. “Sometimes I think that it’s not the degree of sorrow that matters,” she writes, “but how much of a hold it can get.”
Alongside their scheme involving Sara, the readers of Broken Wheel have their own matters of the heart to attend to, including unresolved grief, unresolved child custody and unresolved sexual orientation. In fact, there’s so much material here, it might be easy for Bivald to write a sequel to this novel or spin it into a series. “The Readers of Broken Wheel” could “Celebrate,” “Demand” or “Travel” next.
That wouldn’t be a terrible thing. But in the meantime, this sweet, quirky book can stand on its own.
Bethanne Patrick is the author of the forthcoming collection “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Katarina Bivald
Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies
Sourcebooks. 394 pp. Paperback, $16.99