Well, it’s lucky I already read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe before settling down to the newly re-released The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, because it’s basically one big spoiler. So that’s my main advice here: READ FRIED GREEN TOMATOES FIRST.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is written by the Swedish author Katarina Bivald, but Sweden doesn’t see any of the action; the novel is entirely set in the fictional town of Broken Wheel, Iowa.
Here’s the premise. Swedish 20-something Sara likes books more than people (can’t blame her)—but she does have a sole friend: an elderly American woman with whom she’s been exchanging letters. I’m not sure how they became friends in the first place. It may be in the book, but I’ve forgotten. Anyway, when Sara makes a trip to Iowa to visit her pen-pal, she arrives just in time for her funeral. Awk. So now she’s stuck in this strange, broken-down town, with a bunch of rather odd characters who don’t really want her there—and she decides to set up a bookshop. Aaaand the power of books unites them all.
A book all about loving books? Count me in. But did it work?
For massive book-nerds like me, this novel is a lot of fun. Not only does Sara drop a lot of names, the author has also hidden a lot of meta book references—so it becomes a bit of a game looking out for them. The most obvious influence, as I hinted above, is Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe—which happens to be one of the most delightful books I’ve ever read. So that’s a definite positive.
I also loved the bookshop scenes. In order to encourage the weirdly book-phobic town to get excited about reading, Sara figures out new ways to classify the books, coming up with inventive shelf names like ‘Sex, Violence and Weapons’, ‘Small-Town Life’ or ‘Warning: Unhappy Ending!’—and I enjoyed thinking up the shelf names I’d most like to browse. (For the record: ‘Unreliable Female Protagonists’, ‘Punch-the-Air Feminism’ and ‘Not-Stupid Memory-Loss Thrillers’ would all be included in my perfect bookshop.)
Firstly, we don’t really get to see the townspeople fall in love with books after all. There’s a fair amount of literary snobbery throughout, which I found unnecessary; even the lovely-sounding title refers to a moment where Sara chooses a rather pretentious selection of books on their behalf, in order to impress a neighbouring town. I would have preferred to see the readers of Broken Wheel recommend Twilight if they’d actually read it.
Secondly, there was the lack of grit. I really enjoyed how much Bivald borrowed from Fried Green Tomatoes—from the town right down to the characters—but I don’t think the power of the original quite transferred. Where Flagg painted a complex, gritty, yet wonderfully charming Alabama town, Bivald could only conjure up a rather faded copy. Flagg’s themes of sexism, racism and homophobia are here—but they’re not tackled with nearly the same sensitivity. Of course, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is set in modern day, and times have changed considerably since the 1920s when Fried Green Tomatoes is set, so I wasn’t expecting to see her characters face quite the same struggle—but Bivald’s half-hearted portrayal of discrimination faced by POCs and LGTBQIA+ individuals in small towns was borderline offensive. It would almost have been better for these themes to have been left out entirely; instead they were introduced as minor obstacles to be overcome in the blink of an eye. (The small matter of US Border Control was treated with the same levity.)
Update: I interviewed the author here and got some interesting responses that somewhat changed my mind.
I definitely had fun reading The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend—the first half at least—but by the end, I did find myself rolling my eyes a little. If you’re looking for something light and entertaining with a book-nerd twist, then this is right on the money, but if you were hoping for something a little more persuasive as to the power of books, you might want to keep looking.
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.