Not without charm

Every now and then a novel comes along, written as a series of letters. 84 Charing Cross Road is one, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society another. (Both books this reader heartily recommends. I have visited both places, by the way.)

And now we have The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. I guess a quirky title goes with the territory, although this is only partly a dive into the mailbox. I have visited Iowa, as it happens, but sadly Broken Wheel is not found on Google Maps.

Small town Iowa has its charms, but they can be hard to find. Swedish bookseller Sara visits her penpal Amy in Broken Wheel IA, only to find – no spoiler, it’s in the blurb – that she is just in time for the funeral.

Over time we discover the town and its people through Sara’s eyes and Amy’s letters. The place is dying amid the corn and soy farms, and a larger town an hour away has the shops and the schools and the restaurants.

Familiar story throughout America – and Australia too, for that matter – but author Katarina Bivald takes a look at some of the tensions and possibilities along the main street, ripe for “the tourist” to spark into life. As a catalyst, she sets wheels into motion and before you know it, the town is buzzing and the bookshop she sets up is a hotbed of romance quite unrelated to the Harlequins and the Jane Austens and the Bridget Jones on the shelf.

Fittingly for Iowa, this is a corny story. You really have to chew on your disbelief to swallow some of the things that go on. But it’s not a documentary; it’s a farce. A tale with a twinkle in the eye.

This could be an opera, given the unlikely characters and situations. The arranged marriage, the love at first sight, the haunting tales from the past, the amazing coincidences. There’s even a fat lady shooting, to mark the end.

It almost needs a scorecard to keep track of all the characters.

I could wish that some of the story arcs were more fleshed out or the humour was less subtle, but as a first novel in translation, The Readers of Broken Wheel is a sweet bit of fluff to fill out a day’s reading.

Yeees, there’s sex going on, but it’s not at all explicit. The poor reader is tantalised by handsome men not wearing a great deal and then nothing happens. Not on the page, anyway. Kind of an anticlimax when you turn the page and it’s the morning and they are chatting over coffee.

But I enjoyed this, and judging by the sales figures, it’s not just the readers of Iowa recommending this book.


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