If you have never been
stupid lucky enough to take the bus from the Midlands to London, then the train to Cornwall – don’t! The only good thing was it was an early journey & gave me enough time to read just about an entire book.
“When her Father dies, Maud learns that her mother, the beautiful Eleonore, whom she had never known, was from Sweden. She travels to Stockholm to meet her Swedish family and discovers both a new country and a mysterious past.
Maud also learns that Lukas, the handsome older man she meets, was deeply in love with Eleonore in his youth. Maud’s attraction to him is marred as details of Eleonore’s past emerge from family letters.
The story that is revealed, of a rebellious and somewhat immoral young woman, shatters Maud’s fantasy of the fairytale princess she had always believed her mother to be. Only when Maud reads her mother’s final letter does she learn the truth about her own parentage and Lukas.”
Let me start by saying that I loved Swedish for Beginners! In no small part that is because of the location, but also because it is genuinely a really good book.
Swedish for Beginners is set in Dublin, then Stockholm & for me it was a joy to read about a place (Stockholm) that I know (and love) so well. In my mind, I was there, I was part of the family, as a silent observer, taking part in the crayfish party, drinking the aquavit & raising a toast to friends & family – Skål.
Now, that said, is it possible to love a book, but hate (& I do mean hate) all of the main characters in said book? I disliked Maud from the very start – she just came across as a complete brat when speaking to/about her step-mother. I appreciate that she’s in mourning for her father, but so is Kathleen, her step-mother. Barbara, Maud’s cousin, is self-centred, bossy & I just wanted to slap her at least 1/2 of the time. Then there’s Lukas. Well….. I think Lukas is every mother’s worst nightmare. He’s narcissistic, violent, emotionally stunted & just plain full of himself.
Luckily, O’Leary writes a good book in spite of her characters. Swedish for Beginners sees us following a journey of realisation for Maud. She starts out as a spoiled, self-centred mouse of a woman who has a life, but isn’t really living, but through the course of the book she grows (although not always for the better). After her father dies, and she has one last fall-out with her step-mother, she begins the search for her past, for answers to what makes her who she is.
Maud’s mother died when she was only a small child & her father refused to discuss her, even with Maud; completely wiping Eleonore’s existence from their lives. Maud receives a box of stuff from her father’s attic, which leads her to a part of her heritage she had no idea even existed – Sweden. She travels to Stockholm where she stays with her bossy & not very likeable (at least to me) cousin, Barbara. Barbara introduces her to her family, to her grandmother, uncles & cousins, second cousins & her pseudo-uncle, Lukas, the narcissistic ego maniac actor, as well as to Stockholm – to its history, its beauty, its culture.
Maud’s grandmother, Julia, gives her a bunch of letters that Eleonore had written to her childhood friend, while living in Australia. Maud decides to have them translated into English, hoping that they will provide clues to who her mother was & thereby help her understand who she is. Before long she’s wrapped up in both the letters & in a chaotic, consuming & troubling relationship with Lukas, much to the disgust of Barbara (for once, I agree with Barbara!). Lukas was raised by Maud’s family, but is not a blood relation & Maud is captivated (before she even meets him, in fact) with him, even though she suspects he is just using her to get some kind of posthumous revenge on her mother.
Will she find what she is looking for? Will she get the answers she had been hoping for, or will the truth be best left hidden & unspoken? Will Maud wake up & realise that Lukas will never change, that he will always be on the edge of violence, on the edge of a breakdown?
Now, I hope I haven’t put anyone off Swedish for Beginners – it truly is a lovely book & it’s my dislike of the characters that makes it so real, makes me have such a vested interest in the outcome.
Some of the things that I absolutely loved about Swedish for Beginners were the description of Stockholm – from Maud’s arrival at Skavsta airport (been there), to the descriptions of Gamla Stan, the archipelago, Djurgården & the rest of Stockholm – all places I have been & I saw in my mind as I read. Then there’s the names of the characters. In my head I said them the Swedish way; for instance, Julia was “You”lia, not Julia with a hard J. Swedish for Beginners took me back to a place I love & hold dear & while that alone could not have made it a good book, to me, it sure didn’t hurt!