THE RED ADDRESS BOOK
By Sofia Lundberg
290 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25.
Most curmudgeonly protagonists, my own included, are barely eligible for senior discounts and ought to be booking cycling trips across Asia instead of shuffling about in their bedroom slippers (yes, I mean you, Ove). So it’s refreshing that Doris, the Swedish heroine of Sofia Lundberg’s debut novel, “The Red Address Book,” is truly old at 96 and depicted with an unflinching eye toward the realities of advanced age. Housebound and alone, she isn’t about to rise up and go on life-changing adventures. Death is, she says, “waiting in every little wrinkle, clinging to my body.”
Doris has two things left in life. One is her weekly Skype visit with her American great-niece, Jenny, a married mother of three. The other is the memoir she is writing, prompted by names in the red address book given to her by the father she lost as a child: “All the names that come and go. That rip our hearts to pieces and make us shed tears. That become lovers or enemies.” The address book may wear a bit thin as a literary device, but each name unlocks a new adventure.
A maid in Stockholm at 13, a fashion model in 1930s Paris, unemployed and poverty-stricken in New York, torpedoed in World War II: Doris struggles like Job. But help always pops up in the nick of time. A fellow Swede on a New York bus offers a home; a sailor on a dark pier provides a disguise and a job on a ship to Europe; unexpected funds arrive in the mail. There is a slightly breezy overlooking of travel logistics and the realities of war, but the story is a colorful page-turner.
Doris’s history alternates with a present in which she breaks a hip. As Jenny flies to her hospital bed, we learn that Doris has been a surrogate mother to Jenny, whose own mother died a drug addict. Doris has always had a tense relationship with domesticity. “Eventually I couldn’t do it any longer. I packed a bag and just went on my way,” she writes of a family abandonment she regrets. Regret, however, doesn’t stop her from nagging Jenny to be more than a stay-at-home mother: “Start writing again. Work on yourself. In the end, that’s all that really matters.” Caustic Doris is more interested in true love than Jenny’s careworn marriage to Willie. “Everyone has a love they never get over, Jenny. It’s normal,” she says. “What if you had chosen Marcus as your life partner? What would your kids have looked like then?”
As the ending unfolds, the declining Doris unleashes enough words of wisdom to start an inspirational coffee-mug collection: “Enough sun to light up your days, enough rain that you appreciate the sun.” “Don’t be afraid of life, Jenny. Live.” “In the end all that matters is love.” But in her final pages Doris does write a truth authentic to her character: “Because it is hard, Jenny. Life is hard.”
I wish Lundberg’s debut had been given a more thorough polishing, which might have fixed some clunky language, as well as the occasional howler. However, we should meet a book where it is, and in our continued craving for all stories Scandinavian, “The Red Address Book” is just the sort of easy-reading tale that will inspire readers to pull up a comfy chair to the fire, grab a mug of cocoa and a box of tissues and get hygge with it.