The Red Address Book

Image of The Red Address Book
Release Date: 
January 8, 2019
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

“In this tender and heartfelt story, Sofia Lundberg offers a reminder that those we too easily dismiss, such as the elderly, have rich histories and lives that we can learn from.”

Doris is 96 years old and lives alone in her apartment in Stockholm, her only family a great-niece in San Francisco, and her only company the caregivers who daily drop in to help her. To pass the time, she reminisces about the names written in her red leather address book, a gift given to her by her father on her tenth birthday. When he tells her, “You can collect all your friends in it,” Doris takes this advice to heart and begins a lifelong habit.

Years later, as she opens the pages, her collection has become bittersweet. With an “x” over most names and the word “dead” written beside them, it is a reminder of how many of these friends she has lost. The Red Address Book, told in a series of flashbacks inspired by the names collected inside of this book, is Doris’ life story, written on a laptop for her great-niece, Jenny. She doesn’t want those memories, the good ones and the bad, or the people she has known to simply vanish.

As she records the events and memories that comprise her life, it is clear there is more to Doris than the helpless old woman her caretakers now see. The names, ticked off one by one in the address book, are pieces that fit together to create her remarkable life. Unflinchingly, she records every detail, beginning with the day her father died in an accident, sinking the family into poverty and effectively ending Doris’s childhood.

After this event, her mother can no longer care for her and finds Doris a job as a housemaid for an eccentric French woman living in Sweden. With the help of life-long friend and abstract artist, Gosta, she is able to maneuver through the challenges of this new life.

When her mistress decides to suddenly depart Stockholm for Paris, Doris is the only servant she retains, and the young girl finds herself plunged into the strangeness and bustle of a new world where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the language.

It is in Paris that Doris grows from a timid, young girl into a courageous woman. She becomes a “living mannequin” and is thrust into fame. It is also in Paris that Doris meets Allan Smith, her lifelong love. When her mother dies in Stockholm, her sister comes to Paris, and Doris takes on the responsibility of raising her.

But love and stability seem to be always just out of reach. When war threatens Europe, Doris escapes with her sister to the United States. Once her sister is married and settled, Doris feels compelled to return to Europe to find Allan. With World War II raging, it is no easy task to simply go home, and it is years before she is able to finally make her way back to Sweden. Though she has not found Allan, her good friend Gosta offers her a home, and she remains with him the rest of his life.

As we are returned to the present day, Doris is very ill and dying. Her great-niece travels to Sweden to be with her and is able to read Doris’s story, neatly printed and waiting for her. She is astonished at what she learns about her great-aunt, a woman who has been Jenny’s lifeline and stability for most of her life. And through Doris’s narrative, Jenny begins to unlock her own secrets and learns a little about herself.

As the narrative switches back and forth between the present and the past, it is easy to read and hard to put down. Doris is captivating, strong, and resilient. Though her life was far from perfect and the promise of love was never fulfilled, what Doris had was still enough.

In this tender and heartfelt story, Sofia Lundberg offers a reminder that those we too easily dismiss, such as the elderly, have rich histories and lives that we can learn from. The book helps us to recall that “Love rests beneath every headstone” and our lives are enriched by all those people that we have known and loved and lost.

Completely engrossing from start to finish, The Red Address Book is a poignant tale of memory and how those things we carry in our heart work together to create our own life stories.