Friday, October 4, 2019

Review: The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg

To this day my family laughs about my paternal grandmother's address book. It was a baffling document for anyone but her. She didn't list people alphabetically by last name. Well, she did for some. She didn't alphabetize them by first name. Although, again, she did for some. She listed them under whatever letter of the alphabet made sense to her. So her brother was listed under B for brother.  Her sister was under S for sister.  My father was listed under R for Ronnie with all of our myriad of addresses crossed out and rewritten over the years. Her haphazard system, one that only she understood, made telling the important people in her life that she had passed away a big challenge. We were so busy marveling at the way she filed everything that we didn't stop to consider who the people we didn't recognize might be, and we especially didn't wonder at the crossed out people. Who they were and who they were to her would probably have been an interesting and different perspective on her life. Sofia Lundberg's novel, The Red Address Book, is a book based on that premise, that entries in an address book can tell the story of the owner's life.

Doris is 96 years old and living alone in Stockholm. Care workers come in to help her periodically but they treat her as if she has regressed to childhood and have no interest in who she was in the past. She tolerates the workers but she lives for her weekly calls with her American great-niece Jenny, with whom she has never shared her past either. Jenny's life is busy and she can't find the time to visit her Aunt Doris until Doris falls and ends up in the hospital, slowly sinking. As Jenny faces her great-aunt's mortality, she finds it important to ask Doris about her past, to find out as much as she can about her beloved relative before she's gone and also about the things from Jenny's own past that she has never understood or known. In this she is aided by the red address book with so many of its entries crossed out and marked "DEAD."

Woven through Doris' current day story and triggered by the entries in the beloved red address book her father gave her as a young girl is the story of her complicated past. From her early childhood and work as a maid to working as a model, from the disappeared love of her life to the tragedy of their family, from what the war took from her to what it eventually gave back, and the choice she made to return to Stockholm in her later life, the entries of the address book span it all. It is both the story of her life and the people in it as well as a visual representation of what it looks like to have lost so many important people as she comes to the end of her life. While the premise is wonderful and the story of Doris' past is interesting enough, it is a little too simplistic and the current day story has stilted dialogue and unrealistic, predictable outcomes. This should have been incredibly heartwarming but there was something about it that missed the mark, not evoking the emotions it clearly meant to. It is unclear whether this is a translation problem or if it's a story problem. In the end, I wanted to feel more, to connect more, to like this so much more than I did, after all, I already appreciate the personal value of an address book.

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