Two women, four decades apart in age, share their emotional scars while living next door to each other in a small Swedish town.
Olsson’s restrained debut has the hallmarks of an Ingmar Bergman film: a leisurely pace, a chilly Scandinavian setting leavened by rich observations of nature and characters whose prim, polite facades eventually disappear, exposing years of anger and hurt. Veronika, a 30-year-old writer, arrives in a tiny village looking for a solitary place where she can work on the follow-up to her successful first novel. The house next to the one she rents is owned by Astrid, a septuagenarian shut-in whose husband is slowly dying in a nursing home miles away. Veronika is sad and embittered, Astrid is so closed-off she has a reputation as the village witch, but as their routines increasingly intersect, their relationship thaws, and they become close friends. Over dinners, hikes and trips into town, they discuss the things that prompted them to seclude themselves. By and large, those things are men: Astrid was cruelly rejected by her grandfather as a child, her true love died when she was a teen, and she spent years in a loveless marriage to a domineering man; Veronika left her boyfriend in Stockholm to live with another man in New Zealand, but that relationship had a tragic ending. It’s a story with lots of potential to become overwrought, three-hanky fare, but Olsson refuses to give in to that temptation. Her prose is empathetic while remaining steely and unadorned, never overselling the amount of psychic damage that either character has sustained or glossing over the women’s flaws. While the plot demands that the conclusion offer some familiar statements about our capacity to heal, Olsson’s observations about breakups and dysfunctional families are carefully thought out and free of cliché. The slow pace is sometimes maddening, but it places the women’s personal dramas in strong relief.
An appealing, if oddly stoic, meditation on friendship.