The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg
translated by Alice Menzies
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019; 290 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
When I happen across a book that doesn’t seem to be of the same whole cloth as a majority of the other books I’ve read recently, like Sofia Lundberg’s novel The Red Address Book, I start to get a little nervous. Did I miss the odd character point of view? The breaking of the fourth wall? The dystopian world? Not that The Red Address Book does not have its dark moments; Lundberg’s novel is set in a lifetime of a woman named Doris born in 1920 and spanning to 2016, and she travels in that long life from Stockholm to Paris to Genoa to New York City and back again to Stockholm, all in the midst of a world war and a niece fighting her own battle with addiction. But the darkest moments of Doris’s life are not any more dystopian than to be expected, and small cracks and slivers of hope crease through the narrative.
Doris’s account begins with a story familiar enough in the world between the wars; her parents are just getting by with a furniture business, but when her father dies in Doris’s early adolescence Doris must go and work as a maid in order to survive. In her new environment she meets artists, musicians, and party-goers of all types that she must shoo out after parties as part of her duties, and one such artist is Gosta Nillson, whom she writes to throughout her travels, sometimes receiving a reply and sometimes not. Gosta and Doris’s mother work in unknown tandem to influence Doris to soak up whatever world she lives in; Gosta instructs her to enjoy Paris while she can when Doris and her mistress leave Stockholm, and Doris’s mother gives her a wish of gratitude regardless of situation:
“I wish you enough,” she whispered in my ear. “Enough sun to light up your days, enough rain that you appreciate the sun. Enough joy to strengthen your soul, enough pain that you can appreciate life’s small moments of happiness. And enough friends that you can manage a farewell now and then.” . . . My mother’s words became a guiding light in my life…just thinking of them has always given me strength. Enough strength to make it through the hardships to come.
What shapes the book (and the title), is that the red address book is the last thing Doris received from her father before he died; he teaches her to write her memories of everyone she meets in the book, and the characters turn the novel into a patchwork quilt of people who influence Doris’s life in both positive and negative ways. When Doris either witnesses the death of a friend or family member, or assumes such, she crosses out the name and writes “DEAD” next to the obliterated line. This method, throughout the course of Doris’s long life, leads to only one error, and a presumed lost character is found just in time to say goodbye to her. Still, the story doesn’t seem lost or wasted with this near miss of more than sixty years, since the encounter at the end of the book seems to be, by Doris’s own lights, “enough.”