The fifth novel by an award-winning Norwegian author and critic deserves to win her a much larger stateside readership.
The latest and best from Ullmann (A Blessed Child, 2008, etc.) resists categorization, except as a literary page-turner. It's a murder mystery. It's a multigenerational psychodrama of a dysfunctional family. And it's a very dark comedy of manners. Yet the author’s command is such that it never reads like a pastiche or suffers from jarring shifts of tone. The plot focuses on the events of one day, the 75th birthday of Jenny Brodal, a cold and caustic woman who's so resistant to the party being thrown in her honor that she ends her sobriety of almost 20 years and gets roaring drunk. Jenny's daughter Siri, who throws the elaborate party, is a chef and restaurateur. Her husband, Jon, is a mostly forgotten novelist with the worst case of writer's block since The Shining. He's also a narcissistic lecher and the source of the novel’s comedy. He had “planned to write a hymn to everything that endures and everything that falls apart. But truth be told he wasn’t sure what he actually meant.” The couple's two daughters remain on the novel's periphery, though one of them is seriously and increasingly disturbed. The girls' nanny, Milla—who has “breasts that men couldn’t help staring at''— has developed a mutual attraction with Jon, which strains both of their relationships with Siri. Echoes of dead children, grieving parents, empty marriages and broken lives abound. The day of the party becomes both farce and tragedy, with Milla disappearing and Jenny's drunken decline leaving questions until the very end.
The author might be best known in this country as the daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, but her accomplishment here merits more than recognition by association.