Ninety-six-year-old Doris Alm’s address book holds more than the names and addresses of people in her past. In the novel The Red Address Book, Swedish author Sofia Lundberg brings to life the treasured memories its pages hold.
I especially admire novels with creative set-ups, like Sofia Lundberg’s The Red Address Book. Its clever framing device propitiously draws the reader into 96-year-old Doris Alm’s life and her recurring memories. Doris, in failing health, treasures her ancient red address book, which is filled with obsolete contact information. Turning the book’s tattered pages triggers Doris’s thoughts of people from her past. Seeing a wavy line, with the word DEAD written alongside the name, reminds her of how much she has lost, but also of how much she can happily remember.
The Red Address Book moves seamlessly between present and past. Sitting in her apartment and later lying in the hospital, Doris recalls both good times and the bad. But Doris doesn’t want her memories to die with her. She wants her grandniece to know her secrets, some never revealed before. So Doris is writing a memoir, too, using her address book as her guide, leaving pages of recollected prose for Jenny to find after her death. She begins with her Swedish childhood, a happy life until her father dies and leaves the family destitute.
I don’t want to give away the seams and stitches in her life, but Doris’s days span the Euro-American globe. First Sweden, when she is precipitously thrust into service as a maid. Then Paris in the 1930s, where poverty and glamour intertwine. An escape to the United States when war is imminent, then the war itself. After that, back and forth for decades between Sweden and America, Doris recalls people she loves, people she loathes, and people who die. Her address book documents the episodes etched in her memory, the ones she at long last wants to share with Jenny, who dearly loves her grandaunt but lives in California, a continent away.
Okay, I’ll admit I shed a tear or two at the end of The Red Address Book. It’s that kind of novel—one that tugs at your heartstrings and one that makes you realize anew how much World War II cost. Sofia Lundberg moves Doris from peaceful setting to wartime chaos, from ecstasy to agony, using vivid scenic descriptors and getting inside Doris’s head. Lundberg also does a wonderful job balancing the young eye-stopping beauty against the aging wrinkled crone, showing exactly how the two Dorises are parts of the same whole. Lundberg also conveys successfully the long later years, as the two Dorises necessarily merge.
I haven’t said much about Jenny’s role in The Red Address Book because her discoveries (and the reader’s) are part of the book’s charm. In many ways Jenny functions as a counterpoint to Doris. Their stories are quite different, but their underlying approaches to love and life tend to be similar. Doris’s urge to tell her tale, in fact, offers opportunities to steer Jenny away from potential pitfalls. The Red Address Book ultimately is a women’s book, a novel about trials and utter tragedy, about promises and passions and possibilities. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Sofia Lundberg: The Flight Against Nonsense; A Question Mark Is Half A Heart.
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