15 Women Writers Discuss Their Favorite Overlooked Books
Two things that make any reader happy: an enticing recommendation from a fellow booklover and an underappreciated work that turns out to be a gem.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author, most recently, of The Signature of All Things.
As a child, I idolized both my grandmothers. They seemed better to me than other adults—wiser, calmer. Also, they had mighty powers. Rules didn't apply to them. My parents submitted to their will.
This is why I adore The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, an obscure little novel that features my favorite grandmother in all of literature. You may know of Jansson from her Moomin children's series, but The Summer Book is decidedly not for kids, though it is about a kid—a 6-year-old Scandinavian named Sophia, who spends the summer alone with her grandma on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland.
The setting is mythic: This is Viking territory, after all. The island is beautiful, but dangerous. The grandmother is as tough as her surroundings—and so is Sophia. There's nothing sentimental about these two. Jansson does not regard children as innocents, or old ladies as kindly simpletons. Instead, she depicts Sophia and her grandmother as a pair of well-matched powerhouses who provoke each other and vie for control, alternating tenderness with aggression. They are clearly the most important people in each other's lives.
Their time together is limited. This book is short because summer is short. Childhood is also short, and grandmothers don't last forever; mortality's shadow looms. Yet I always feel buoyed by it because I get to watch something amazing: a strong old woman teaching a willful young girl how to be.