An intellectual young woman falls for a prominent artist in this story of obsessive love.
In plain, unsparing prose, Swedish author Andersson (this is her first novel to be translated into English) tells the story of Ester Nilsson, a woman who loses her bearings over a man. Ester is a sensible scholar and freelance writer when the book starts; she lives with her unexciting but reliable boyfriend, Per, and is contentedly devoted to intellectual pursuits. Then she's asked to give a talk on renowned artist Hugo Rask, with whom she immediately develops a fascination. She’s determined to dazzle him with her lecture, thinking men like him were “receptive to the power of formulations and their erotic potential.” She succeeds, is enthralled by his attention, and the stage is set for a relationship defined by her hero-worship and his passive acceptance of it. Ester notices the power imbalance early on: “Hugo never followed up anything Ester said. Ester always followed up what Hugo said. Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him.” But, as will seem horribly familiar to some readers, this indifference doesn’t deter her; instead it’s fuel to the fire. Ester leaves Per and throws herself into a love that starts to guide all her waking movements. With classic, torturous uncertainty, she puzzles over the meaning of every encounter and the crushing blank of Hugo's frequent absences. Andersson’s cleareyed depiction of this abject state is merciless, her writing clean to the point of starkness. But that harsh style is suited to the subject matter—the book asks, are human beings responsible for vulnerabilities in others? And can a woman win a man solely with intellectual firepower? The book is lean and compulsively readable as Ester finds increasingly improbable reasons to cling to hope.
Andersson’s sketching of the lovesick Ester and the preoccupied Hugo is so well done that every incensed text she sends him is another little piece of our collective heart as we follow a struggle that has existed for as long as human life: the lover and the loved.