We chose to read The Red Address Book because its message — which author Sofia Lundberg told us in our Q&A is “to listen to people around you, regardless of age” — feels especially pertinent right now.
Here's some background reading from The Local on the subject:
Why do so many Swedes live alone?
'I'm 72 but my younger partner works in a hospital': Stories from self-isolation in Sweden
- Could robots soon care for Sweden's elderly?
Reading the book helped a lot of us to think about our own elderly relatives, friends and neighbours, as Doris tells the story of her life through the names and memories stored in her address book. She writes these up for her great-niece Jenny, who lives in San Francisco.
I could relate to the relationship between Doris and her great-niece Jenny most of all in the passages where Doris encourages Jenny to write. My grandmother was always the biggest supporter of my writing when I was younger, and I wrote her a collection of stories in which she and I went on adventures together as secret agents.
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See also on The Local:
There's been a recent wave of fiction featuring feisty elderly protagonists, including our previous book club pick The Little Old Lady Who Broke all the Rules, and next month's book, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. But what I particularly enjoyed about The Red Address Book was the acknowledgement that while most elderly people's adventuring days are behind them, they have often lived rich and exciting lives and have stories worth telling without needing to use the imagination. We don't always have to make up stories to give them agency and adventure; all we have to do is listen.
The struggles of staying in touch with family living many miles away struck a chord with a lot of our book club members. Right now, a lot of us who live far away from family are in the difficult situation of not knowing when we will next see our loved ones. The scenes in which Doris and Jenny end a Skype call, for Jenny to go back to chaotic family life and Doris to revert to silence and memories, were some of the most poignant in the novel.
International moves shaped Doris's life as she tells it, from her involuntary relocation to Paris for her work as a housekeeper, to a trip to the US that's linked to love, a return to Europe for the same reason, and finally back home to Sweden. It's a bittersweet book, and themes of regret and missed chances are woven in with those of love and luck.
Some of the things that happen to Doris are caused by factors out of her control (and on a few occasions, she's saved by a lucky circumstance that requires some suspension of disbelief), but we also get a picture of someone determined to shape her own life, especially in her younger years. As she grows, she seems to tone down her goals from the fine things and admiration she sought as a young model in France, to understanding what her mother meant in her parting words: “I wish you enough.”
Here's what else Book Club members had to say about The Red Address Book:
“I love the idea of your whole life being contained within a little red address book; so many stories being told through the names. Doris is obviously very lonely in her old age but it seems she’s been able to keep her kindness; so far she doesn’t seem bitter to life. The way Doris experiences the various carers is food for thought, I think, in how we treat many elderly today. The book also clearly points out the difference in times, with Doris travelling to Paris losing contact with her mother, then on to New York only sending letters to Gösta. Now we easily keep in touch with family and friends through technology when we move around the world (as Doris and Jenny are doing)” – Magdalena Mobee
“I loved this book. It reminded me of the lengthy conversations I had with both my grandmothers. They had such an impact and taught me so much. I always treasured the company of older people even when I was younger. I think younger generations dismiss the old ones as boring and out touch without thinking of how rich their memories are. It’s living history if they had the patience to listen.
“I think this was perfectly represented by the carers in the book, always talking loudly even though Doris was not deaf and treating her like a child. The lack of respect is astounding. I wouldn’t dream of treating an older person like that but it is symptomatic. One thing that saddened me was how alone she was and I believe this is common in Sweden. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing to leave older people behind?” – Samantha Hammell
“I was struck by the changes she was forced to make, from an early age, and through her life.She had frightening and challenging life experiences, on both sides of (and in) the Atlantic. Each page in her address book brought a memory. Gösta was a constant in her life. Jenny became her reason for being. The plight of the isolated elderly in Stockholm and here in the US is clearly depicted, and making her so very human with feelings, wishes, hopes and dreams. You will love the ending. It made me think about the pages in my address book,” – Judith Busch
What to read next: If you enjoyed the writing style and felt intrigued to read more about elderly protagonists, Fredrik Backman is a great author to start with. His breakthrough novel A Man Called Ove looks back at the life of grumpy Ove, while My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry sees seven-year-old Elsa embark on a mission after her grandmother's death, delivering apology letters to the people the older lady thought deserved them.
Alternatively, for an older protagonist but a decidedly more upbeat and surreal story, join us throughout May as The Local Sweden's Book Club reads The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.