Swedish novelist Andersson (Willful Disregard, 2016) charts the course of an exhausting affair between a writer and a charmless, married actor.
Ester Nilsson, a poet/philosopher/translator, meets actor Olof Sten at the read-through of her first play, a “melancholy reflection on the agonies of love.” The play, called Threesome, is about a “man trapped in an unhappy marriage who meets another woman but can’t bring himself to leave his wife,” which—conveniently—is also the plot of this novel. After this first meeting, Ester and Olof fall into a hesitant noncourtship, made up of agonizing phone calls and text exchanges and sometimes drinks but never physical consummation. “His marriage was disintegrating; there was no doubt about that,” Ester decides. “All she had to do was wait.” Unfortunately for Ester, Olof seems not to have reached the same conclusion and instead insists that they do not have a romantic relationship and also that he has no intention of leaving his wife. This stance becomes somewhat complicated when, after several months, he and Ester do inevitably sleep together—when Olof in fact invites Ester to visit him for a weekend of skiing—but the affair never quite takes off in earnest on account of how Olof will never wholly concede that it is happening. As a result of their mutual attraction but nonmutual commitment, he and Ester break up and reunite repeatedly, with Olof offering just enough validation to keep Ester believing, despite some lack of behavioral evidence, that he is just about to leave his wife. Andersson’s writing, crisply translated from the Swedish by Vogel, is wry and refreshingly unsentimental, but the drawback of a 300-plus page novel charting the minutiae of an underwhelming relationship in excruciating detail is that it is excruciating; the relationship has little going for it, and while this is all too realistic, Andersson’s sharp eye and quick wit cannot quite redeem the experience.
Sharp, if relentless.