If I tell you this book is quaint in the most lovely of ways, will that make sense to you? Because it is. Readers of the Broken Wheel Recommend is… wholesome? in some indefinable way that calls to some nostalgic, small-town warmth and hope that just seems to imbue some books. (Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen is another one of those books, for me.) The kind of feeling that, when you examine it outside of the book, can feel hokey or corny, but somehow – just within the pages of that particular book, in that particular place, with those particular people – it feels special and sacred and possible.
I’ve never lived in a small town, and I assume that I would hate it – I don’t do gossip all that well, and I’ve never been good at fitting in comfortably. Socially awkward nerds thrive in cities, is my guess. Because, at the very least, nobody will notice how uncomfortable I am, if the crowd is big enough. But books like Readers of the Broken Wheel Recommend make me long for small town living in a completely unrealistic way: Honestly, the townspeople in this story can’t mind their own business for three seconds, and that would drive me nuts in real life, but somehow I don’t find their meddling overbearing and unwelcome, in the context of the world that Katarina Bivald has managed to create. (Even when I did find them overbearing in the story, I was not annoyed by it: It felt natural & even kind, in a way that actual interfering, real world people never would.)
So: We’ve got reluctant world traveler, and basically pretty sheltered Sara, from Sweden, who winds up in Broken Wheel at the behest of her Iowan pen-pal, Amy. Only Amy hadn’t met her at the station as promised, and she’d had to accept a stranger’s lift into the tiny town. And Broken Wheel – population 637 – is tiny, make no mistake. Not that Amy hadn’t told her that, it’s just that the town and its inhabitants had seemed almost mythical under Amy’s capable storytelling hands: Sara had had no difficulty picturing Miss Annie and her bike-bookmobile, or the biblically bossy Caroline as she bustled around town organizing church sales, or the three ‘young people’ Amy had claimed as her own – now all grown-adults, – busily bumping into each other, or Amy, every now and then, with a congenial smile and the ease of long acquaintance. But the stark reality that greets her is something else: Three cross streets, a diner where the waitress tells her her best bet is to turn and go back where she came from, a silent man sitting down the counter who’s pressed into givign her a ride to Amy’s house and – most shocking of all – the fact that Sara has arrived just past time for Amy’s funeral.
Facing Broken Wheel without her friend is definitely not what Sara had planned, especially not once Caroline and the other townspeople decide she’s meant to not only stay in Broken Wheel, but at Amy’s house. As she settles in, and explores the town, and meets more people, and gets to know Amy’s beloved town through her own eyes, Sara is suddenly facing a lot more adventure then she bargained for. When a character notes, less than a quarter of the way through the book that “Broken Wheel is dying,” you can’t help but agree with him. And wonder what the heck the rest of the book will be about, if that happens. Fortunately, the author does a great job of making you CARE what happens to Broken Wheel and its inhabitants.
Here’s part of what makes this book so charming – Sara is a true bibliophile. Like calls to like – it’s how Sara and Amy initially bonded, over books – and it’s how the author hooked this book-loving reader/reviewer. As a self-confessed book pusher myself, how could I resist a character who insists “Whether they knew it or not, they needed books. … And she swore to herself that she would force books on them before she was done here.” So when Sara opens a bookstore with Amy’s books and uses them as a means to connect with the community, she has my wholehearted support – especially when she starts unorthodoxically categorizing the books into shelves like “Warning: Unhappy Ending!”, “Short but Sweet”, “Gay Erotica” (at a towns-person’s suggestion), “Smalltown Life”, & “Feel Good Reads”.
As a confirmed, life-long, (multiple library) card carrying bibliophile, Sara – and the author’s – conspicuous love of reading and faith in readers is my catnip. It’s obvious that the author loves books as much as I do, and – to be honest – even if the book wasn’t very good otherwise, that might be enough for me. (“Can you smell it? The scent of new books. Unread adventures. Friends you haven’t met yet, hours of magical escapism awaiting you.”) But luckily, there was so much more here – Sara’s (and my) bibliophilia aside, the book was full of warmth and humor, and characters that you wanted to ‘win’ – for whatever measure of winning applied to them. You wanted them to find love, or hope, or laughter; to learn to be open, or to forgive, or to forget: You see how the bravery of one person infects and impacts the entire town, and you can’t help but cheer them all on.
Of course, the fact that I got to add to my To Be Read Mountain, based on Sara’s suggestions, was also a plus. But the idea that a person could just pick up from where they are, and start over in a new place is not just a romantic ideal in this story – it’s the true challenge and strength of both Sara and Broken Wheel. The fact that Bivald doesn’t gloss over the hard work and terrifying fear that is required to do such a thing, that she is capable of making you see the fierce struggle Sara goes through, is a real benefit of her storytelling style.
“Help me, she thought. Don’t let me be one of the minor characters.” Sara laments to herself as she battles through one particularly trying night. Have no fear, Sara, your author has done you right – you’re the heroine, the star, the center, of this particular book, no doubt.
(My copy was provided through NetGalley, but please consider buying your own.)