Summer 1893, and the Norwegian fishing village of Åsgårdstrand is preparing for the arrival of well-to-do guests and bohemian artists from the city. Local girl Johanne Lien dutifully gathers berries for tourists and poses barefoot for painters as ‘The Strawberry Girl’. Johanne becomes a maid for the wealthy Ihlen family, whose wayward daughter Tullik recruits her as a go-between in her pursuit of the controversial painter Edvard Munch. Before long, Johanne is drawn into the raw emotion of Munch’s art and his secret liaison with Tullik. But when she is asked to hide more than just secrets, Johanne must decide whether to take the risk…
The beautiful cover is what attracted me in the first place. Then I discovered the book was set in Norway in the XIX century and I thought: why not? Although I’ve read Harry Hole’s books, I had never read a historical novel set in that country. Later, I found out thatthe book was inspired by Munch. Color me intrigued (😉).
Johanne is our main character. She’s sixteen years old and is known around her town as The Strawberry Girl. She picks strawberries for everyone. She also used to model for painters when she was younger and she’s incredibly interested in Munch, as she wants to be a painter as well. But Munch is kind of an outcast and everyone except Johanne seems to think he’s crazy. When Johanne starts working as a housemaid for the Ilhen family, her world suddenly changes. She befriends the youngest daughter, Tullik, and gets caught in the middle of her affair with Munch…
Only after reading this book I’ve realized how much I love stories where a young girl works as a maid for a wealthy family (probably Downton Abbey withdrawals). I’ve read several and there’s something about that particular topic that engages me. This was no different, as I found it to be a refreshing story, one that I believe could attract many readers of various genres. Don’t get me wrong, this may be labeled as a love story, and it probably is, but I didn’t find that part to be the most important. I loved Johanne and her struggles and I’d say this is more of a “coming-of-age” book.
The writing is wonderful and I particularly admired how Lisa Stromme used colors as a way to express feelings. “Passion. Crimson. Gold.” I thought it was original and fitting. The book was about art, creativity and bohemian life and it made me super interested in Munch and his art, which is always appreciated. I admit I don’t know much about Munch or paintings in general and I only knew about The Scream, which is precisely what this novel is about. Even though it’s fictionalized and the author said she made up the character’s personalities and relationships, I love to think that this could be true. What a great story.
Anyway, this is a beautiful novel which is easy-to-read and exquisitely written at the same time. It’s impossible not to become attached to Johanne and worry about her friendship with Tullik. Would we have done the same as her?
Chatto & Windus, 2016