This book was terrible.
I feel really bad saying that because it was recommended to me by a student who really loved it and wanted me to borrow her copy. And to be fair, I maybe thought it was a non-fiction bit of travel writing about Vienna, and I was jonesing for a good bit of travel writing and ended up bitterly disappointed it was a novel…even if it was a novelization of a true story.
Based on the author’s actual experience, Emmy Abrahamson’s How to Fall in Love with a Man who Lives in a Bush tells the story of Julia, a Swedish expat who followed a guy to Vienna, broke up with him and ended up teaching English to professionals, and, feeling dissatisfied with her life, takes up with Ben, a happy-go-lucky homeless 20-something living under a bush in the park across the street from her office.
Sounds ok, I guess. (I guess?) But it wasn’t.
So first, Julia is the most basic, shallow, rom-com character. She’s not unlikable, nor is she particularly likable. Fortunately she was at least more relatable than the other characters, necessary for a protagonist who must necessarily serve as audience proxy per the genre’s structures. However, Julia was randomly and oddly graphic in her language and descriptions at times. It honestly seemed out of character, though it is hard to tell what is in or out of character when there is so little character to go on in the first place.
Ben, on the other hand, is supposed to be an adult but is written and therefore behaves like a child. He is immature, socially unaware, aggressive, and close-minded; mistakes voicing opinions loudly and confidently for intelligence; and even becomes borderline verbally abusive at times. He references challenges in his past and what could be very serious problems in his present, but the novel doesn’t explore the consequences of his actions and situations, so it’s hard to take those parts seriously. Ben is supposed to bring spontaneity and joy to Julia’s life, but he turns all of her real concerns for him into character flaws about her. She is not a better or measurably happier person when she is with him, even though she thinks she is.
This is the worst kind of romantic comedy. Glossy, superficial, free of consequences, unrealistic. It drops just enough references to real life challenges to seem grounded and justifies (even celebrates) inappropriate and toxic behaviors. And the ending made me furious.
As in all rom-coms, our lovers break up for a while over a misunderstanding. And she almost doesn’t go back to him. She has extremely good reasons for not going back to him, and I really thought this book was going to flip the script and allow Julia to move forward with her life. But then in the end, she decides she can’t live without him and goes back to him. Bullshit. Pure bullshit.
And here’s the thing–this is based on the author’s actual courtship with her actual husband!! So first, if I were her husband and this were not an accurate portrayal me (and I sure hope it’s not), I would be really pissed off at how I came off in the book. And second, if this is an accurate portrayal of them and their relationship, I am very concerned for the author, their children, and those close friends and family in their lives.
Disclaimer: This is a translation, and so it could be argued that it’s hard to tell if the the book was actually this bad or if a lot of the nuances were lost in translation. For example, Julia highlights several English lessons throughout the book, and some of the “rules” that she harped on are things that I, as a native English speaker, have never heard of or know to not be true the way she explained them . So that makes me wonder if I’m being harsh about the quality of the initial book, and also makes me wonder about both the author and translator’s levels of comfort with English, the accuracy of the translation, and how well the translation serves the author’s story.
Still, don’t waste your time with this. The only good thing about it is that I was able to check off the “read a book in translation” item on my 2018 reading challenge list. And honestly, I’m kind of irritated about that because I have several other books in translation on my shelf that I would rather have used.
So to sum up: skip it.