Sara is a young woman from Sweden who has arrived in Iowa to meet and stay with her pen pal of two years, Amy Harris. When she arrives, things are not quite as expected though. Amy, who was quite elderly, has passed away and her funeral is just finishing. The town of Broken Wheel is not only economically depressed but it seems to be quietly fading away into oblivion. Sara has traveled half way around the world for something that has all but disappeared, Amy and the town she wrote of so charmingly. The townspeople feel as if they are responsible for Amy's guest, inviting Sara to live in Amy's house and looking after her until she decides what she intends to do now that everything has changed. What Sara finds is a town full of kind, quirky people she feels a kinship with because she already knows them through Amy's letters. She wafts around the town, confused by their insistence that she not pay for things, observing the barter system that allows them all to continue to get by, and wondering how to pay back these generous people who have taken her under their wing. When she hits on opening a bookstore for the town, using Amy's books as the stock, it is a labor of love for her. She's certain that the inhabitants of Broken Wheel need books and stories to revitalize their lives and their small town and this will be her gift to the people she has come to care for so very much.
The entire premise of the book is completely and totally improbable right from the get go but if readers agree to look past that stumbling block, they will find a sweet, light, and heartwarming tale of the power of books to transform people. There are letters from Amy to Sara interspersed throughout the text, the letters that inspired Sara to leave her home and come visit but also strategically chosen to highlight a person or an aspect of Broken Wheel that will be more fully illuminated in the chapter following it. Some of the secondary characters have fairly extensive side stories, detouring the reader from the main plot for quite a while. Sometimes this works and sometimes it is terribly distracting. Other secondary characters, including Tom, Amy's nephew and novel's the romantic interest, are not fleshed out and feel unfortunately one dimensional. Interestingly, the characters are a very diverse group, allowing Bivald to touch lightly on the themes of tolerance, racism, homophobia, alcoholism, evangelicalism, and more. Sara herself is a quiet and unassuming main character, in fact a bit of a milquetoast. She's lost and wandering but the town grounds her. They are what she needs and vice versa. She has an interesting outlook on book selling and books, creating truly enchanting shelving categories and recommending unusual reading choices to the townspeople, stretching their minds through the books she hands them. The end of the novel is predictable but appropriate for this sentimental, feel-good novel about reading and books, how they bring us together as human beings, and the importance they play in everyone's lives. The tale will charm and please readers who love to read about books and who are looking for an undemanding and diverting read.