Review published on May 13, 2017.
Steffi is fifteen years old and, with a complexion inherited from her Cuban father, her exotic looks make her a target for cruel and relentless bullying at her school in a small Swedish town, as does her passion for listening to and playing classical jazz music, rather than the popular music her peers listen to. Most of the time her family is loving and accepting, but nevertheless she generally feels alienated and friendless. On her way home from school one day, she hears her favourite song coming from the open window of a retirement home. As she stands outside listening, the occupant of the room, recognising her interest, gruffly invites her to come in and introduce herself properly. So begins her relationship with 89-year-old Alvar who, as a seventeen year old in 1942, moved from rural Sweden to Stockholm because, as a keen musician, he dreamed of playing in a jazz band rather than joining the family timber business.
This charming story switches between Steffi’s struggle to find herself in what so often feels like an alien world, and Alvar’s experiences of chasing his dreams in wartime Stockholm. Their shared love of jazz, as well as the fact that each of them has experience of feeling different from their peers, is central to their developing friendship. Alvar helps Steffi to feel confident in her sense of self as well as in her artistic ability, whilst Steffi enables Alvar to relive his wartime experiences and his passion for playing jazz, at a time when it was viewed with suspicion by many people in conservative Sweden. Although there is a huge difference in their ages, there is so much that they have in common and, as a result, each of them gains from their unlikely friendship.
Through the experiences of these two characters the author explores many themes which centre on developing self-belief, even when it feels as though no one appreciates or understands you; finding the courage to chase your dreams; recognising and valuing true friendship and having the courage to be different, not to be moulded by other people’s expectations. The psychology of bullying was well explored as the story developed. It gradually became clear that some of the characters who were bullies had themselves been bullied, exposing the fact that, rather than affected individuals becoming determined to behave differently, all too often abusive family patterns are repeated down through the generations.
I enjoyed the author’s rather slow, highly evocative and almost poetic style of writing, and I soon fell under the spell of her well-drawn main characters. Although this is ultimately a feel-good story, I liked the fact that she tackled issues of bullying in a very direct and specific way; some of her descriptions were so harrowing that I feared for Steffi’s safety and found myself wanting to intervene to protect her! I thought that she managed the shifts between the two stories in a convincing way, and that the parallels between Steffi’s and Alvar’s experiences emerged in an easy and unforced way. As a fan of classical jazz, there were moments when I felt that I was reading to an irresistible background beat! I loved all the references to performers whose work I enjoy, as well as to ones who were new to me (I am now feeling keen to extend my musical education!). However, I can imagine that non-jazz-lovers may well find the amount of detail rather too much!
I think this is a delightful coming of age novel and whilst it could be regarded more as a young adult novel, I think it will appeal to readers as young as twelve, as well as to much older ones. I also think that the themes covered would make an excellent teaching resource. My feelings about it as a choice for a reading group are rather more ambivalent. However, I do think that some groups would enjoy exploring the power of the relationship between Steffi and Alvar: what each of them brings to the relationship and what it highlights for each of them.
Linda Hepworth 4/3
Wonderful Feels Like This by Sara Lovestam
Flatiron Books 9781250095237 hbk Mar 2017