‘She didn’t for a moment doubt that she would get the people of Broken Wheel to read, regardless of what they thought.’
‘Bivald encourages us to look for adventure in both literature and life…Charming’ – The Lady
Katarina Bivald has herself worked in a bookshop. In fact, her home in Sweden that she shares with her sister has as many bookshelves as she can fit in. Bivald is a true bookworm to such an extent that it is said she is as yet undecided as to whether she prefers books or people.
‘This quirky, offbeat novel about books, with its wry humour and wonderful characters, is a delicious read’ – Choice
‘A manifesto for booksellers, book lovers and friendship. We should all celebrate these little bookstores, where our souls find home…one of those books you want to live in for a while’ – Nina George, author of The Little Paris Bookshop
I decided to read this book after seeing it on display at the library for some time. Something about the cover with the picture of a girl with her head in a book appealed to me and when I finally picked it up to have a look it sounded like such a great read for a book-lover that I thought I might as well give it a go.
As is in the title, the novel is set in a small town in Iowa, USA, called Broken Wheel. The town used to be thriving but due to a number of reasons is now a little deserted. The neighbouring town, Hope, which you may have heard of (Bill Clinton comes from there), seems to be growing and rather looking down on Broken Wheel. Yet the small town has a close community, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and very little is kept private. The residents seem willing to meddle where necessary, are very protective and the small-town American feeling is well created by Bivald.
‘There was no difference between books and life there: both involved happy and unhappy love stories.’
At the age of 28 Sara decides that now is the time to leave Sweden and explore somewhere new. An invitation from a woman named Amy Harris, who lives in Broken Wheel and has been corresponding with Sara for some time, gives the perfect opportunity. Yet when Sara arrives, things are not quite as she expected them to be. The locals seem fascinated by the arrival of a tourist and with her arrival Sara seems to be the catalyst for some changes in Broken Wheel. The largest of which is the bookshop that she decides is desperately needed (being a large bookworm herself), despite what the residents say about no one being interested in reading. I do not think either the residents nor Sara were prepared for what would happen during her trip to Broken Wheel.
The first thing I should say about the narrative is that this book was originally written in Swedish. However, I would never have guessed that just from reading the book, which shows that the translation must be pretty good. The novel is narrated in the third person which I think is interesting. I would have thought Sara would have been chosen as the narrator, especially as at the beginning it seems to be nearly always her that we focus on. However, as the plot progresses, Bivald focuses more and more on the other residents of Broken Wheel which means that a third person narrative works much better. It is almost as if Bivald uses Sara to introduce us to the other characters before developing them more once we know them a little better.
‘Sara assumed that the majority of people who ever thought about her believed she used books to hide away from life.’
Sara is really the principal character and she was definitely my favourite. I think it was largely her deep love of books that drew me to her and some of her thoughts and feelings about books really resonated with me. Aside from that, Sara was relatable all-round. She is kind, genuine and honest and is the kind of character I could see myself getting along with if she were real. She is a character who wants to learn more about herself and the world around her, whilst also wanting to find her place in it. Sara is so much of a bookworm that it seems she has become accustomed to living lives through books instead of actually living her own life. That is something that going to Broken Wheel will change for her and she will change many of the lives in Broken Wheel.
Sadly, Amy Harris is actually a character that we do not get to meet. We quickly learn that Amy has passed away before Sara’s arrival, but the residents are keen for her to stay as Amy’s guest anyway. What we do learn about Amy we learn from the residents, Sara and the letters Amy sent to Sara which are interspersed throughout the novel. These letters give the reader an insight as to what Sara already knows about Broken Wheel and its residents because of Amy. The reader themselves also learns new things through the letters and I think they are a good way for Bivald to divulge information to us.
There are so many characters that I could talk about from this novel, but I am going to introduce the residents in one paragraph. Firstly, there are Jen and Caroline who seem to be the representatives of Broken Wheel. They are on the council, with Andy, and are really the ones who come up with a lot of plans and ideas for the town and are then in charge of orchestrating them. Andy is part of what Amy calls her ‘youngsters’. This is basically the group that Amy has watched grow up and include Andy, Tom and Claire. Carl could also be included in this group as he is Andy’s partner. One of the first residents we meet is Grace. She is the rather outspoken owner of the local diner and insists that she does not want to get involved with all of the town’s problems. The last two residents that I would say are important characters are George and John. John was a very good friend of Amy’s and Sara is very aware of not wanting to upset him by doing things like staying in Amy’s house. George is a character we see quite a lot of. He has clearly gone through some hard times in his life and is a recovering alcoholic, but when Sara arrives he becomes her designated driver and the two form a good friendship. There are a couple of other characters, but as far as main residents go, those are the ones whose stories we learn.
Moreover, there is one particular scene that I would like to talk about because it was one of my favourites. In Sara’s bookshop she places a couple of chairs by the window so that people can sit and read. One day, she is sat reading in one of the chairs when a couple of boys notice her through the window. They decide to see if she will notice them, but she does not. Soon people who are passing stop to watch and it is not long before a large crowd develops. Still, Sara is so engaged in her book that she is oblivious. Eventually, Sara puts down her book and realises there is a crowd of people watching her through the window, amazed that she could be so engrossed in a book. I love this scene because I think it perfectly captures that feeling of finding the perfect reading spot, losing yourself in the story and escaping from the world around you.
With this scene in mind, I would like to talk a little about how this book is just great for book-lovers. I think book-lovers will find Sara to be totally relatable. She feels the need for a bookshop, every place should have one; she always has a book close at hand ready to escape; she loves the smell of books and how they all smell different, who doesn’t? And her love of books makes her want to lead others to reading. Sara believes there is a book out there for everyone and I think that is so true. Additionally, there is a little bit in the novel about Penguin Books. I found this bit really interesting and it fit perfectly into this book. I knew about why Allen Lane started Penguin Books because I have read about it in some of my own editions, but I had not heard of the ‘Armed Forces Book Club’ before and loved learning this new information.
The end of the book was exactly what I had hoped. A disappointing ending would have been a bit rubbish for a novel that is so perfect for bookworms, but Bivald did not let us down. I was left with a smile on my face, feeling perfectly satisfied.
I would recommend this book, especially to bookworms. I think it really speaks to you if you are a lover of books, and Sara is the perfect fictional bookworm. However, I think this book could also be good if you like those sort of small-town America stories.
‘Live a little. Read a little.’
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend – Katarina Bivald, first published in Sweden by Forum in 2013, translated into English in 2015, first published in Vintage in 2016, RRP £7.99, ISBN 978-0-099-59367-6