by Sofia Lundberg
English Translation 2019
On her tenth birthday in 1928, Doris Alm’s bibliophile father gave her a red leather address book. “You can collect all your friends in it.” Pappa smiled. “Everyone you meet during your life. In all the exciting places you’ll visit. So you don’t forget.” (p. 7) That is exactly what Doris did.
We meet Doris at the age of 96 using the book for a sort of end-of-life review. She is still living alone in her Swedish home with a bit of help from a caregiver, but she knows that this could change at any time—and it does. As she reviews her address book, she notes that there are almost no names remaining that she HASN’T marked “dead.”
The person still alive to whom she is closest is her grand-niece Jenny, her dead sister’s granddaughter who is married with 3 children and lives in San Francisco. They keep in touch via Skype, and it’s clear that the love between them is incredibly deep despite the physical and age distances between them. While Doris is realistic and at peace about her impending death, Jenny can’t bear to think of life without Doris.
Doris has decided that she wants to give Jenny her memories “so they don’t just disappear.” Jenny in turn wonders what SHE will remember because in her opinion, her life lacks excitement. Doris replies: “It’s never exciting when you’re in the middle of it. It’s just difficult. The nuance becomes visible only much later.” (p. 253) So true!
Using the book as a reminder of the people and places who have passed through her life, Doris writes about them and her experiences, creating a record that Jenny can keep. Before she can completely finish that work, she experiences a fall in her home. The injury puts her in the hospital requiring surgery and subsequent care. In a panic, Jenny and her 2-year-old daughter fly to be with Doris in Sweden. While staying in Doris’s home when she’s not at the hospital, Jenny discovers the written memories Doris prepared for her, as well as photos and letters that reveal more about Doris.
We learn that Doris’s father died not long after giving her the address book, devastating the family finances. Her desperate mother sent her into service at the age of 13 in the home of Dominique Serafin, where she came into contact with many society and artistic people. There she formed a platonic friendship with Gosta Nilsson, a struggling painter whose work gained greatly in value only after his death. This friendship continued for decades until his death, and later in her life, they lived together for many years. That period was one of refuge for Doris.
However, many other traumatic events occurred between meeting Gosta and living with him. Serafin decided to move to Paris not long after Doris went into service and took Doris with her. One day while walking on the street, she was accosted by a man who was stunned by her beauty and hired her as a live manikin in a Paris fashion house. This gave Doris a career, independence and a decent income of her own for several years in her teens.
While she was modeling, she met Allan by chance, the love of her life. Their months together in Paris were the happiest of her life…until he disappeared without explanation. Doris was devastated. A letter from Allan arrived one year later asking her to come to America where he had gone, and she and her sister went to join him. However, because of the mail delay, Allan hadn’t heard from Doris and thought she didn’t want to join him. He had married someone else in the interim and was on his way back to Europe. They had only a few hours and overnight together. She stayed in America, and her sister married an American of Swedish heritage. The sister died leaving a newborn girl who became Jenny’s mother.
Doris later decided she had to get to Europe by any way possible, despite the danger of the war. She posed as a male and took a cook’s job on an ammunition ship headed to England. (She was raped nightly and impregnated by the man who got the job for her. The baby did not survive, nor did she want it.) As the ship neared the English coast, the Germans attacked it. She abandoned ship before it exploded and was rescued, barely alive, by a fisherman. She stayed with him in England until she re-established contact with Gosta and moved back to Sweden.
Over the years, she sometimes traveled to America to deal with her sister’s daughter Elise, who became a heroin addict. Elise’s daughter was Jenny, and she didn’t have a very stable childhood. It was during those periodic visits that Jenny and Doris formed their deep and loving bond.
The life Doris wished for every day of her life—being married to Allan for many decades and raising the children they’d dreamed of in Paris—stayed with her. Instead, Doris lived an alternate life. It was one that included love in various forms…but not the love of her life (Allan) due to a variety of circumstances. Yet she never became bitter. She tells Jenny:
These are wise words indeed for a young author to express in her first novel. Although I can’t verify it, I strongly suspect that Lundberg resembles the Jenny character in this book. I don’t think she could write Doris’s character as truly as she does without having been close to a woman of advanced age.
Of course you want to know if Allan and Doris find each other again in this life. I’ll not deny our readers the gift of discovering the answer and ending.
One might think that all the death and strife and separation from families and loved ones in the book would be depressing, but that is far from true. This book is a rare treasure, uplifting, going straight to the reader’s heart. It’s one you’ll want to keep and read again. Ultimately, we can all ask ourselves the question at the book’s end:
“Did you love enough?”
A PASSING TO NOTE: Andrea Camilleri, author of the beloved Sicilian Inspector Montalbano series, passed away on July 17, 2019, at the age of 93. He started writing the popular series at the age of 69! Readers can always count on a good story along with laugh-out-loud humor that the translator is able to convey to English readers. He leaves us over 20 novels with the Montalbano character, as well as a TV series and DVD’s to continue to enjoy. Several years ago, he left the last Montalbano story with his publisher to be released after his death. Soon we’ll know his vision of what finally happens to our dear Insp. Salvo Montalbano.