In The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Sourcebooks, 2016, $16.99, 395 pages), one of the themes explored by Swedish novelist Katrina Bivald is this idea of the ways in which books shape, change, enchant, and connect readers.
The story opens when young Sara Lindqvist travels from Sweden to Broken Wheel, Iowa, to meet an older woman, Amy, with whom she has maintained a literary correspondence. Both women share a lively interest in literature — Sara works in a bookshop, and Amy is a voracious reader — and Amy invites Sara to visit her small, dying town for a vacation of reading and books.
Unfortunately, when Sara arrives, she finds the entire town in mourning. Amy has died of a lingering illness — she never told Sara of her disease — and Sara finds herself bereft and alone in Broken Wheel. The townspeople have heard about Sara from Amy before her death, and they draw together and take Sara into their community, settling her in Amy’s house, offering free groceries from the tiny store and free drinks at the local café, and providing a driver and a car for her.
To say more of the plot might not necessarily spoil the book for readers, but it would remove some of the pleasure in following this fine, whimsical tale. Instead, let me offer you a few reasons for reading this novel.
First, the characters are genuine. George the reformed alcoholic who drives for Sara; Caroline, the starchy middle-aged woman who acts as the town moralist until she falls for a man 20 years her junior; Andy and Carl, the two gay men who run the town tavern; Tom, the loner who is slowly drawn to Sara: these and all the other characters engage our attention.
In addition, Bivald gives us a realistic portrait of the struggles of small-town America. Broken Wheel is losing its young people to the outside world (some of them have moved to the next town, hilariously named Hope); farmers have lost their fields and houses to the bank or sold them to investors; half the businesses on Main Street are shuttered. People like Tom, Andy, and Carl are struggling to make a living.
Yet The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is not a novel of darkness or despair. Quite the opposite. Many of the residents of Broken Wheel are tough Iowans whose ancestors faced drought, blizzards, and crop failures. Moreover, Bivald brings a droll humor to the stories of these people. The growing attraction between Sara and Tom, and the town’s efforts to push them together; the sexual tension between Caroline and the young Josh; Grace’s constant laments about the falsity of most fiction: the various plots by the townspeople to boost the reputation of Broken Wheel and to keep Sara with them: all should bring a smile.
Amy and Sara’s love for literature also permeates the story. Throughout the novel we read some of the letters written by Amy to Sara in which she discusses her favorite books and the gifts they have brought to her life. When Sara find’s Amy’s treasure trove of literature, we see through her eyes and emotions the wonder of books. At the end of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Bivald, who clearly loves books herself, includes a list of the books and authors found in the novel and a short interview in which she enthusiastically discusses books and bookstores.
Bivald’s Sara Lindqvist also reminds us of the enormous — and often hidden — role one individual can play in others’ lives. Her growing affection for Broken Wheel and her involvement with her neighbors slowly changes both them and her. Sara brings new life to the dying town, and the town in turn helps her grow from a shy, withdrawn bibliophile into a courageous and independent young woman.
What most impressed me, however, about The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is Bivald’s ability to depict so accurately and so affectionately a midwestern American town and its people. When asked in an online interview how she managed to place her story in such a setting without ever visiting Iowa, or for that matter, the United States, Bivald explained that she had read many books and watched many movies about life in small-town America. That she could write such a true-to-life story based on movies and books is a remarkable achievement.
Readers seeking fast-paced novels packed with action will want to avoid The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. But if you are looking for love, romance, humor, intrigue, some bits of light philosophy, and solidly-made characters, you should, like Sara Lindqvist, pay a visit to Broken Wheel, Iowa.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katrina Bivald. Sourcebooks, 2016. 395 pages