Saturday, October 16, 2021

A Beautiful Portrayal of a Life Well Lived

Book Remarks

“I leaf through my address book sometimes. It has become something like a map of my life, and I want to tell you a bit about it. So that you, who’ll be the only one who remembers me, will also remember my life. A kind of testament. I’ll give you my memories. They’re the most beautiful thing I have.”

Imagine that you are 96-years-old and living alone in a sparse apartment. Your body is failing and the only human contact is either with the caregivers that come each day with food or the weekly Skype appointment with a relative who lives overseas. What would you do with your days?

“The Red Address Book” by Sofia Lundberg, answers that question. Doris is in failing health and she spends her days wistfully gazing at the names in her address book, crossed-out with the word DEAD written next to them. She’s in Stockholm and her only living relative is a grandniece, Jenny, who lives in California. So, in order to pass on her life story, she writes the memories behind each of those names so that Jenny will remember her and more importantly, the life she led.

We meet a varied cast of characters through Doris’ address book. Gosta Nilsson, a tortured artist who becomes a lifelong friend; Dominique Serafin, the woman who employs her at the tender age of thirteen and moves her from her Swedish birthplace to Paris. There is Agnes Alm, her mother and then Allan Smith, the love of her life.

It’s through these stories of lost people that we learn about Doris. Her journey from her home in Sweden to Paris. How World War II forced her to leave Europe for America and the longing she felt for home. We learn of Doris’ life as a ‘living mannequin’ in Paris to a fisherman’s assistant in England. Each person in Doris’ address book provides more and more of her history. There is a rhythm to her recollections and we anticipate learning about everyone “from A to Z”. But an accident at home sends Doris to the hospital and the clock starts ticking on when her own name will be the one crossed off.

Here is where the book incorporates a different story, the story of Doris’ grandniece Jenny. When Jenny discovers Doris is in the hospital, she and her toddler daughter fly to Sweden to be with her. There is some back and forth between Jenny and her husband Willie. He’s resentful that she rushes to Sweden, leaving him behind to take care of two teenaged sons. But Doris’ memories and the story pick up speed as Jenny discovers the pages Doris has been writing just for her. Jenny is desperate to read everything while Doris is still alive so she can experience those memories with her and ask questions. It is here that some family secrets and guilts are exposed, and a long-lost reunion occurs.

“The Red Address Book” was originally written in Swedish and has since been published in 32 countries. For a subject matter that is so nostalgic the book seemed to be missing nuanced emotion, but I attribute that more to the translation than the author’s intent. Interestingly, the story came from an address book the author discovered after her beloved great aunt (also named Doris) died. There is an inherent sadness to finding a book with names crossed out and it upset Lundberg to think her aunt was so lonely. Lundberg took that loneliness and created a beautiful portrayal of a life well lived. As Doris tells Jenny, “I wish you enough… 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.”

Thank you for reading!

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