I'm going to do two things I rarely do. One, I'm going to write a review for a book a few hours after I finished it. Two, I'm going to post a review for a book that has been appearing in digital and paper format slowly – and I hope it is available at your preferred retailer when this review goes live. I also hope this review inspires a few libraries to add this author to their collection, as I really liked this book.
This book was originally published in Sweden (and thus, in Swedish) in 2005 under the name Små citroner gula, which means “Small yellow lemon,” if Babelfish isn't steering me wrong. It was translated into several languages, and is now available (somewhat) in the US.
Let's start with the one sad thing about this book. The US cover is so horribly, terribly, no good, very bad awful.
There are no cupcakes in this book that I remember. Are cupcakes a waning fad in other countries the way they are here? Little overpriced cakes from specialty shops that individually cost as much as a dozen regular old still-delicious cupcakes from the grocery store (provided your grocery store bakery doesn't use shortening to make buttercream, which mine does not, thank GOD because it tastes like pink grease) (I love frosting, particularly buttercream)(real buttercream) (anyway)?
ETA: But look! New cover! YAY!
Here are some of the covers for this book elsewhere in the world. Prepare to be a little amazed at the difference:
I believe this (above) is the Swedish cover.
Oh, well, at least the cupcake is better than this Polish cover, which I found on Kajsa Ingemarsson's website:
That's a jarring image, though I will say that there are nipples in the book. All the people in the story have them!
So let's talk about what's inside this book.
One of the review quotes that I found as I hunted for this book in digital format read, “On a deeper level, Ingemarsson relates with finesse and humor the little things that make everyday people heroic in their own lives. Individual happiness can look very different from one person to another, as is revealed in each of her stories.”
That's exactly what I liked about this book. I'm honestly very surprised that I liked it. It wasn't a romance. When it was pitched to me, it was called 'chick lit' but if that name brings visions of shopping, high heels and wealthy dilettantes in urban places, the only thing that fits this book is the “urban place,” as the book takes place largely in Stockholm. It's not what I think of as 'chick lit,' though it is mostly and mainly about a young single woman in Stockholm approaching a big ol' series of turns and loops in her rollercoaster. Maybe that's “young women's fiction?” I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. Sorry about that.
Agnes is a young woman living in Stockholm working as a head waitress when the story opens. She's being groped by her disgusting boss, a French restaurant owner, and he's pinned her against the wall of the wine cellar.
If you're expecting Swedish Fiction = violence against women, fear not. This is about the only violent thing that happens to Agnes.
She fends off Gross Ogre Boss by grabbing a bottle of wine. A Chateau Petrus, specifically, which makes him back off in a hurry because if she hits him with it, it means many thousands of Kronor of wine could go down his shirt, to say nothing of the expensive concussion.
But because Agnes is panicked and her hands are sweaty, a few thousand Kronor of Petrus ends up shattered on the floor, and Agnes ends up unemployed, without a reference in a restaurant industry that is very tightly connected, and without a way of getting another job as head waitress in a restaurant as high calibre as the last one because Gross Ogre Boss is sure to ruin her name quickly.
The book follows Agnes as she takes a slow route to becoming more of herself, standing up for herself when she needs to (AND OMG FINALLY by the time she did that I was ready to hit her with a case of Petrus one bottle at a time) and taking risks to build something for herself, rather than being at the mercy of others.
What's surprising to me is that I really enjoyed this book – this isn't the sort of novel I usually gravitate towards AT ALL. There wasn't a romance, really. It barely flickered on the “how would I list this book, genre-wise” light up board (what, you don't have one of those?) There was a multi-layered breakup with a real douchetastic asshat. There were friends going to bars, and little problems that stayed little problems, and little problems that became big problems. But there wasn't the glossy slick fantasy set in a big city that “chick lit” often suggests (GOD DAMN DO I HATE THAT TERM). It's about a young woman in a city, but she's a waitress, she struggles with money, she has a very small apartment and a minimal budget for going out – and she's from a very small town where things are changing, much to her horror.
I was totally absorbed into the story. I stayed up late reading it, I got up early and started reading before I finished making breakfast (oops). I sat in an uncomfortable chair reading because I didn't want to stop reading long enough to move.
This book is not gripping OMGWHATNEXT style telling. It's an easy read, but it's sticky in that it shows you so much of the daily life in Stockholm with Agnes that I wanted to learn more. Every time I came to the end of a chapter, I started the next one. I told Hubby at one point when he was talking to me without my hearing him that I was very happily in Sweden at that moment.
Because it's Swedish (and was a huge hit in Sweden, selling over 800,000 copies (total population of Sweden: 9,415,295, according to Wikipedia, if you're curious)) it's bound to get comparisons to the Stieg Larsson books, which were the last hugely successful books most people remember which came over from Sweden into the US translated into English.
The meandering minutiae of life in Sweden is the only thing this book has in common with Larsson's books. That and being originally published in Swedish. It'll might be compared to the Larsson series because it's Swedish and popular there, but it doesn't have the same gripping tension as the Larsson series – and it shouldn't. It's light and happier where the Larsson series is about darkness and rage and death. It also shares a bit of wish fulfillment in the main character. As Blomqvist was desired by all women and everyone wanted to boink him, Agnes has moments of wish fulfillment and grandeur — she has some amazing dreams in this book, but it was charming instead of cloying.
It's a quiet and meandering (seriously, there are scenes about her train then running to catch another train and then the train is moving and there's very little time spentwhere you're not riding along on Agnes' shoulder, but I didn't mind) story that is mostly about Agnes learning to choose for herself and not having things chosen by default. She learns to quietly define limits and not take what is handed to her.
One of the things I liked about the Larsson series, with all it's minute detail and minuscule moments was the revelations about Swedish life, what it's like in various parts of the country, and how the people view their own world. I don't profess to be an expert about Sweden just because I read a Larsson book, but I was very happy to discover more of Stockholm and the small town where Agnes grew up.
This is very much a “visiting book,” a contemporary where you go and visit with the characters and nothing horrifically cataclysmic happens to everyone. There's moments of triumph and total disappointment, and yet I liked Agnes enough to keep reading, even at times when I was more interested in her world than in her as a character. She's not the strongest personality in the bunch, and there are times she's cruel and I want to kick her. Her behavior towards her neighbor makes me want to smack her, for example. And her dunce headedness in a few chapters made me want to beat her with something in the last third of the book – but even as I was saying, “Oh, honey, no,” I understood why she was doing what she did (can you tell I'm trying not to spoil things here?) and was waiting for her to realize what I and everyone else around her already knew. So much changes around Agnes that she tries to hold on to things that are the same, even if they're not good for her. It was frustrating to watch her take a huge leap backwards in her development after she'd done so much to move forward, but I understood and empathized with why she was doing it. In the end, Agnes has to decide if she wants to be blown where the wind pushes her, or stand against it and make something for herself, risky though it may be. Having her move forward, then back, then forward again made the final scenes more satisfying for me.
Because it's not a romance, and it's not really chick lit or women's fiction, nor is it YA, it's a little difficult to classify. And a giant pink cupcake on the cover does not help. I think of it as the “visiting Sweden” book – I wasn't reading it merely for Agnes' story. While I read, I visited her, and visited Sweden, and now I want to look up Kajsa Ingemarsson's other books to go visit some more. Even with the frustrations I had with Agnes as a character, this book was more charming than I expected, and I really enjoyed reading it. I wish it were more widely available digitally and at a lower price in print, but if you see a copy, I hope you'll try it and let me know what you think. It was different, and not a romance, but completely refreshing for its uniqueness.