So, I read this book:
First of all, I just want to say that the cover is absolutely gorgeous; I think I could look at it for hours.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book just doesn't live up.
What baffles me is that this book seems to have gotten rave reviews from all around the world, not just in its native Sweden. I keep reading all of the positive reviews for it and feel really, truly baffled. I'm not going to say this book is horrible; it isn't. But it's not even remotely good either, and I'm at a loss to understand why so many people seem to have loved it.
The plot runs something like this: writer Erica, returning to her hometown of Fjällbacka, arrives just in time to find that her childhood friend Alex has been murdered. Initially, the police suspect the town drunk Anders, with whom Alex was having an affair, of murdering her, but soon he turns up dead as well in another apparent murder. Erica teams up with Patrik, another of her childhood friends, now a detective, to try to solve the murders. There's also a long subplot (or is it actually the main plot?) in which Erica and Patrik fall in love and will clearly live happily ever after. There's another subplot about Erica's sister Anna and her abusive husband, Lucas.
It becomes clear that the murders are related to something that happened in the town's past, when Alex was ten years old. At this time, Nils, the son of the wealthiest family in town, disappeared mysteriously. Shortly after that, Alex moved away. To this day nobody knows what happened to Nils, but it's clear that somehow this is all tied together.
Got that? Okay, here's some short points on what my problems with this book are.
First off, the number of things that happen that are extremely improbable and/or just don't make sense is distressingly high.
Number one on my list is the fact that in the end it turns out that after having been raped by Nils, Alex had a baby, vaginally, when she was ten. With apparently no ill effects whatsoever. (At the time of the story she's been married 15 years; her husband has no idea she has ever been pregnant.) Okay, I'm not a doctor, but that just seems wrong. There seem to have been several girls irl who have given birth at ten or younger, but most of those were by caesarean section, or else were premature births. I'm not saying it's impossible, because there are instances of young girls giving birth vaginally, but it's not exactly a common thing, either. It's especially silly given that nothing in plot actually relies on her having been so young when she gave birth. (Actually, nothing relies on her having been pregnant in the first place; that whole plotline could have been deleted without doing any damage to the story.)
Erica and Alex were friends growing up, and so were Erica and Patrik. Yet Patrik acts as if he's never even heard of Alex. Even if they hadn't both been friends with Erica, this is a small town; surely they would have known each other. Actually, Patrik seems remarkably uninformed about a lot of events in the town he himself has lived in for seemingly his whole life. Why does Erica have to tell him about Nils' disappearance? It was the most infamous event ever to take place in Fjällbacka, and happened during his lifetime; surely he must remember it.
The police chief, Mellberg, is convinced that if he solves the murders, he will be able to regain his former post at Göteborg --- and yet he's amazingly lax about actually getting any work done on the case.
Meanwhile, Erica thinks of checking Alex's phone for the last number called --- but it never occurred to the detectives to do this! (Seriously, the police work in this book is awful. I get it's meant to be a small town that doesn't get a lot of serious crimes, but it's like they have no procedure whatsoever.)
Lucas slams his and Anna's daughter Emma up against the wall and breaks her arm. He and Anna then bring her to the ER, where they tell the doctors that she fell down the stairs. They believe this despite the fact that he has also beaten Anna quite badly that same evening, including punching her in the face, and therefore she logically ought to also be sporting visible bruises. (Earlier in the book, it's mentioned that the bruises Lucas is giving Anna are beginning to become too severe to be covered up with makeup.)
Even though Fjällbacka is characterized as a small town where everybody sees everything, people are constantly sneaking in and out of Alex's house without anyone noticing. No explanation is ever given as to how this is accomplished.
What seem to be two bizarre, unexplained murders, with no obvious suspects, don't appear to alarm the townspeople at all; no one seems even remotely concerned that more murders might follow.
Okay, so that's the stuff that just doesn't make sense to me. Now, onto the characters themselves. In a lot of the reviews I've seen, Läckberg is praised for her psychological realism. I honestly have no idea what these reviewers are talking about. I'm not trying to be overly snarky here; I just genuinely don't understand it. Läckberg's characters are almost unilaterally flat as cardboard; a good number of them read as straight-forward caricatures, not as real people. Furthermore, the characterization bothered me a lot as it exhibited this gross pseudo-feminism that I found really unpleasant. I'm not even someone who would really strongly consider herself to be that much of a feminist to begin with, but the way women are portrayed in this book made me want to barf.
Let's start with the fact that almost all of the characters Läckberg doesn't want the reader to empathize with are completely over-the-top BAD. They have no redeeming features whatsoever. Lucas is a good example of this. There's really no reason in the plot why he has to be an abuser; he seems to just be thrown in there to give the reader someone to hate.
Mellberg is just as bad. Apparently he's supposed to be a humorous character. In actuality, there's nothing funny about him whatsoever. He reads more like a collection of gross traits than a person. No, seriously: he sexually harasses his secretary, he's fat, he has stains on his shirt, he's completely incompetent, he has disgusting-looking hair, and he's incredibly narcissistic. Again, all for no reason whatsoever.
Jan, Nils' adoptive brother, abuses his wife as well, murdered Nils (okay, maybe that one isn't so bad . . . ), is extremely cold and unlikeable, and and also lit his original parents on fire. And Nils' and Jan's mother, Nelly, is 110% the stereotype of the evil rich person who doesn't care about anyone but her own family. She's also described as being so thin she's ugly, because apparently whether a person is good or bad can be determined by observing their outward appearance.
Meanwhile, Erica is supposed to be a sympathetic character, but personally I found her shallow and superficial. She has no depth whatsoever. She plans on writing a book about Alex's murder, ostensibly because she wants to understand her childhood friend (when Alex's family moved away, they never saw each other again), but I really got no sense whatsoever that she was genuinely upset about Alex's death, so her desire to write about it came across as opportunistic to me. She seems more concerned about whether or not she's fat than about the fact that there's a murderer running loose.
And this is where the pseudofeminism comes in. I assume that by making so many of the bad guys abusive towards women and/or children, Läckberg was trying to highlight these issues. A huge number of the unlikable characters are portrayed as objectifying women. Personally I find this clumsy characterization to begin with (it's like Läckberg couldn't think of any "bad" traits other than sexism), but at least it's sending a message that objectifying women is wrong.
However, an awful lot of Erica's parts of the book seem to imply that objectifying women as perfectly normal and okay. When Erica is wooing Patrik, she worries constantly about whether he'll think she's pretty. She seems completely indifferent about whether or not he thinks she's smart, or nice, or funny, or creative. All that matters to her is looking nice. More than half of her internal dialogue is about how much she weighs, how she looks, etc. When Patrik's around, that's almost all she thinks about. Furthermore, Erica judges other women based solely on their appearance; her thoughts seem to indicate that she believes it's a woman's duty to look a certain way. There's no sense that she believes herself (or any other woman) to have any value outside of beauty. If this were supposed to be an example of internalized sexism I would completely buy it, but the narrative treats it as if it were somehow adorable.
The narrative really heavily implies that a woman's love life is the most important aspect of her existence. For instance, after Lucas breaks Emma's arm, Anna leaves him, and takes the kids with her to stay with Erica. Obviously she's upset by this turn of events --- but she perks up immediately when she realizes that Erica has a boyfriend. Suddenly the fact that Erica and Patrik are together becomes more important to her than the fact that her own daughter has been physically abused!
As a side note, there are very few female characters in this book who aren't housewives. Erica isn't, but clearly wants to be, and most of her interactions with Patrik are stereotypically housewife-y anyway. (Her thinking that he'll only like her if she's pretty and cooks him dinner.) Alex wasn't, but she's dead. Alex's "sister" (actually her daughter), Julia, isn't, but it's unclear what she actually does do with her life. As far as I can tell, her entire day consists of lying in bed staring angrily at the ceiling and thinking about how much she hates everything. Otherwise, pretty much all of the women are in some sense of the word housewives. The secretary at the police station, for example, obviously does work, but she has a very stereotypically female job, and besides, most of her work seems to consist of being a mother figure to the detectives. It's like she housewifes while she's at work. I'm not trying to say that being a housewife is a bad thing, but when all the characters of one sex do exactly the same thing, that is per se sexism.
Basically, it feels like Läckberg's saying that sexism is bad, but only when it leads to really drastic consequences like spousal abuse; otherwise it's totally acceptable and the natural order of things. It all left a really bad taste in my mouth.