Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fiction Review: Benny & Shrimp

Benny & Shrimp, by Swedish author Katarina Mazetti, is a sweet and funny love story about two people who are wildly attracted to each other but who have little in common. This novel surprised me, made me laugh, and kept me turning the pages way past bedtime.

Desirée (aka Shrimp) is a well-educated librarian who lives in an all-white apartment in town and enjoys books, opera, and vegetarian food. Benny is a farmer who left high school to take over his parents’ dairy farm and is in desperate need of a farmer’s wife who can cook and clean and help him take care of the farm.

The two first meet at the cemetery, where Desirée’s late husband and Benny’s parents are in adjoining plots. They are each immediately annoyed with the other, but their distaste quickly changes into passion. Their story is told from both of their points of view, in alternating chapters, which adds to the fun as the reader sees first-hand how they each see the same event from completely different perspectives. Here’s Desirée’s first impression of Benny at his parents’ grave:

Next to Örjan’s stone there’s a really tasteless gravestone, an absolute monstrosity. White marble with swirly gold lettering; angels, roses, birds, words on garlands of ribbon, even a salutary little skull and scythe. The grave itself is as crowded with plants as a garden center. On the headstone are a man’s name and a woman’s name with similar dates of birth, so it must be a child honoring his father and mother in an overly lavish way.

A few weeks ago I saw the bereaved by the monstrosity for the first time. He was a man of about my age, in a loud, quilted jacket and a padded cap with earflaps. Its peak went up in the front, American-style, and had a logo saying FOREST OWNER’S ALLIANCE. He was eagerly raking and digging his little plot.

And Benny’s first impression of her:

Going to the grave is my only breathing space, and even then I never feel I can just sit there thinking. I have to rake and plant and weed before I can let myself sit down.

And then she’s there.

Faded, like some old color photo that’s been on display for years. Dried-out blond hair, a pale face, white eyebrows and lashes, wishy-washy pastel clothes, always something vaguely blue or beige. A beige person. The total insolence of her – it would only take a bit of make-up or bright jewelry to let the people around her know that here’s someone who at least cares what you see and what you think of me. All her paleness says is: I don’t give a damn what you think; I don’t so much as notice you.
It might seem odd that they are soon drawn to each other, but who hasn’t experienced a relationship where pure attraction overrode more rational considerations? I really came to care for these two misfits and was rooting for them to somehow work it all out. For me, that’s the mark of a good novel – when the author can make me care about the characters and what happens to them.

I have one minor complaint, a trivial thing that drove me a little crazy. The cover and all the promotional material for this book and many passages within the book describe the two main characters as “middle-aged,” but just a few pages into the novel, I discovered that they’re both about 35! If that’s middle-aged, I must have one foot in the grave at 44! Perhaps they just use the term “middle-aged” differently in Sweden than we do here.

In any case, that is a small thing, and once I adjusted to the fact that the lovers were in their 30’s and not their 50’s, I loved the book. In fact, I think the translation was otherwise excellent because the novel was very well written, and I never felt any cultural rift due to its taking place in Sweden. After all, love is a universal experience.

Penguin, 224 pages.


  1. This sounds fun. Will have to look for it.

  2. I read this one as well. I liked the first half a lot better than the second half. Overall good, but not great IMO