Growing up in a small town in the Deep Midwest, I dreamed of traveling to all of the exotic places I heard and read about, even though it seemed out of reach. My family was poor and never took any real vacations, not even a road trip to the Black Hills or Yellowstone, and until my freshman year of college, I’d really only been to four states including my own. I didn’t see the ocean until I was 18, didn’t fly until I was 22, didn’t leave the continent until I was 29, and didn’t leave again until I was 38. For whatever reason, I’d held onto the feeling that I couldn’t afford the time and expense of travel.
All that changed a few years ago when I met my current partner, a true travel junky who gets anxious when he hasn’t used his passport for a few months. In the first year alone, we went to Japan twice, South Africa and Europe and Australia once. I still wouldn’t be able to afford it if he weren’t (a) relatively well-off and (b) good at playing the credit card points game, but I’ve lucked out and figure I might as well ride the wave while I can.
A few weeks ago, I went to Sweden for the first time, spending a week in Stockholm, and since my favorite travel thing is buying books, I wanted to be sure I picked up at least a few by Swedish authors. One of the recommendations that kept popping up was Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, which seemed perfect since I’m all about women authors this year and crime novels seem to be a big thing in Scandinavia.
The story follows Erica, a writer of literary biographies whose parents recently died in a car accident. She’s still in her hometown to deal with her parents’ house and estate when she’s inadvertently dragged into the mystery surrounding the death of her childhood best friend, Alex. From there, the story takes two tracks, one with Erica dealing with her current life and family situations and the other with Erica looking into Alex’s past to try to learn both why she died and why she disappeared from Erica’s life at age 10. There’s a lot going on, keeping the story from dragging and opening a lot of mini-mysteries to solve.
As a crime novel from a Swedish author, I was expecting darker and more gruesome. As a mystery, I figured out some of the elements fairly early on, but the whole picture didn’t come together until the very end. Though I wish some of the characters were less cartoonishly one-dimensional, I did appreciate the tautness of Läckberg’s writing. Everything meant something either to Erica’s story or to Alex’s. It all worked, all made sense, and there were no unearned twists, no Deus ex machina nonsense, no shocks just for the sake of being shocking. All in all, it made for a decent vacation read that I finished up on the plane ride home.
Where it fell apart for me a bit was the addition of a meta-fiction element in having Erica writing a book about the mystery of Alex’s life and death. It didn’t add anything to the story and came across as self-congratulatory about what a good idea the book was. I love me some meta. If on a winter’s night a traveler is one of my desert island books, and Stranger Than Fiction is one of my favorite movies. But meta is extremely difficult to pull off, and if it isn’t integral to the story, it just sticks out and detracts. 4 3 2 1 was shaping up as one of my favorite reads this year until Auster tacked on an unnecessary meta-ending. The Ice Princess suffered from the same: the meta story didn’t ruin the book for me, but it would have been better without it.