Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What I Read: Grabben i graven bredvid (Benny and Shrimp)

This week's selection is not a book I would have ever picked up willingly; it was required reading for my Swedish class.

It's a romcom? Oh, ugh, I thought. But I took a closer look at the back cover and saw numerous positive reviews. "Grabben i graven bredvid kommer säkert att bli en modern klassiker." ("The Guy in the Grave Next Door is sure to be come a modern classic.") Maybe it won't be so bad, then.

False alarm. False hope, more like.

I can't imagine a situation where my fellow anglophones would ever come across this book—it came out 15 years ago and is hardly The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (though that book is also a hot mess but that's a rant best saved for another day)—but if you do, I would advise against picking it up unless you need some mindless entertainment to pass the time. You know, like a trans-Atlantic flight or a hospital waiting room, and the battery on your Kindle is dead and so is your mp3 player and you can't sleep and you finished your Sudoku book and the only other things available to occupy your time are back issues of celebrity rags and Good Housekeeping.

I had a lot of problems with this book. I'm sure if I'd read it in English I'd only have more; I won't pretend that the literary nuance of passages here and there didn't elude me. I'm good, but I ain't that good. Nonetheless, there were other problems that were so stark I couldn't help but notice them, even through the hazy fog of my nonnative Swedish.

The story is a love story between Benny, a dairy farmer, and Desirée, a cosmopolitan Stockholm librarian. They meet in the graveyard where Desirée comes to mourn ("mourn") her late husband and where Benny tends the grave of his parents.

It's a cutesy conceit and I was willing to give it a chance, but it never picked up from there. The rest of the story is your typical mismatched odd couple love story. A chance for some great character study, not to mention commentary on class and education and what society does and doesn't value, but nope. Mazetti seems to think that so long as you insist that two characters are totally different from each other, you're spared the task of actually characterizing them.

Benny is as dull as dishwater, but I'd take him over the hysterical (and I'm using that word with all of its original sexist connotations, here) stereotype that is Desirée any day. Desirée is baby-crazy and talks endlessly about her ovaries and biological clock. Desirée and her ~BFF~ Märta (who is equally hysterical) spend their evenings drinking wine and gossiping over their men and their sex lives. Desirée is the emotional, artistic one in the relationship. And so on.

 The magical sex trope is one I'd like to see die. See, Desirée wasn't really in love with her late husband. How do we know? Why, she never enjoyed the sex. How do we know that she's not really interested in the coworker she starts seeing? The sex is mediocre. And how do we know that Benny is ~*~The One~*~ for her? Because all of a sudden she's having the best sex of her life!!!! People absolutely have different chemistry with people: two people can have really dull sex with each other but incredibly hot and immensely satisfying sex with other people. Stuff like this—"it's never been like THAT before"—is a grown-up version of the "true love's kiss" from the old fairy tales, and it's just as ridiculous.

The problem with the odd couple love story trope is that you have to have enough of a connection between these two opposites for the romance to seem plausible. Novelty wears off quickly, and if there's no rock-solid connection underneath the novelty then the relationship falls flat and, in the case of fiction, so does the story. If I can't imagine what brings these people together, then you have failed as a writer, and there is no way I can imagine or understand what Benny and Desirée like about each other or see in each other.

The best thing I can say about Benny and Shrimp is that it is a quick read, and a short one to boot.


  1. Bleh. Here here on the whole love/sex thing.

    1. I'm not inherently opposed to it in stories but man you need to do it right or not do it at all. =/