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Elsa is dying. Her husband, Martti, and daughter Eleonoora are struggling to accept the crushing thought that they are soon to lose her. As Elsa becomes ever more fragile, Eleonoora’s childhood memories are slipping away. Meanwhile, Eleonoora’s daughter Anna spends her time pondering the fates of passersby. For her the world is full of stories. But the story that will change her forever is the one about Eeva, her mother’s nanny, whom her grandparents have been silent about for years. Eeva’s forgotten story, which...

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Elsa is dying. Her husband, Martti, and daughter Eleonoora are struggling to accept the crushing thought that they are soon to lose her. As Elsa becomes ever more fragile, Eleonoora’s childhood memories are slipping away. Meanwhile, Eleonoora’s daughter Anna spends her time pondering the fates of passersby. For her the world is full of stories. But the story that will change her forever is the one about Eeva, her mother’s nanny, whom her grandparents have been silent about for years. Eeva’s forgotten story, which Anna first learns of when she discovers an old dress of Eeva’s, is finally revealed layer by layer. The tale that unfolds is about a mother and daughter, about how memory can deceive us—and sometimes that is the most merciful thing that can happen.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

A haunting novel about three generations of women, the power of memory, and an old, discarded dress that leads to the disclosure of a disturbing family secret.

Publishers Weekly
In Pulkkinen’s second novel, her first to be translated into English, the Finnish author tells the story of Elsa, a well-known child psychologist; her husband, Martti, a painter; their doctor daughter Elenoora; and Anna and Maria, their 20-something granddaughters. All have assembled around Elsa as she succumbs to cancer. Anna and her grandmother have always been kindred spirits, often playing dress up and picnicking in the park, and it’s Anna’s choice of outfit for one of these outings that opens a window into a forgotten chapter of Martti and Elsa’s past. The frock that Anna plucks from the closet belongs not to Elsa but to Eeva, Elenoora’s former nanny, with whom Martti had an ongoing affair during Elsa’s scholarly trips. While Anna obsesses over her grandparents’ past, seeing in it an alternate life that she so longs for, having to face her father’s betrayal makes Elenoora question everything. Pulkkinen has a fine eye for description and infuses her characters with longing, but the story is familiar: desire for a different life than the one we’ve chosen. An eloquent family saga that falls short of revelation. Agent: Hanna Kjelberg, Otava Group Agency. (Mar. 20)
From the Publisher
“A beautiful, sensuous novel” –Library Journal

“Pulkkinen spins variations of [the] theme of transformative identity, having characters periodically relate to one another as if they were improv artists” –New York Times Book Review

“Secrets, long hidden, are revealed through alternating voices from her family's present and past in this poignant work of fiction.” –Barnes & Nobel Book Review

Library Journal
Maybe the recent flurry of genre fiction from Scandinavia has sparked an interest in translations of its literary fiction as well. Or maybe this prize-winning Finnish novel was simply too good to pass up. The plot is an old one—the husband of a prominent family falls for his child's nanny—but the story is made fresh by its complex play of past and present and richly rendered characterizations. In a narrative that spans two generations, the author movingly captures the passions between lovers and the affections between children and caretakers, so that one's sympathies constantly shift. Martti, a well-known painter, and his wife, Elsa, a child psychologist, are too distracted by their careers and egos to pay attention to their young daughter, Eleonoora, or to their own drifting relationship. Eeva, the young nanny, seems to come alive as she grows entangled in the family and loses her way against the dynamic backdrop of 1960s Europe's changing mores and political scene. Years later, as Elsa is dying of cancer, one of Eleonoora's daughters puts together the clues of her grandparents' relationship. VERDICT A beautiful, sensuous novel; for most readers.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA
Kirkus Reviews
In Finnish author Pulkkinen's first novel to be translated into English, a dying woman and her family become a prism illuminating love from a variety of often-uncomfortable angles. Child psychologist Elsa and artist Martti Ahlqvist have had a long, apparently successful marriage. Their only child, Eleonoora, is a tirelessly efficient doctor with an understanding husband and two grown daughters of her own. In the final stage of terminal cancer Elsa comes home from the hospital to live her last days to the fullest. When Eleonoora's older daughter Anna, an emotionally troubled graduate student, comes to visit and give Martti a few free hours, Elsa arranges to picnic and play dress-up as they did when Anna was a child. But the dress Anna puts on never belonged to her grandmother. A surprised Elsa explains it belonged to a woman named Eeva. Eeva was Eleonoora's nanny, hired so that Elsa could leave her very young daughter for weeks at a time while traveling for her career. Eeva also became Martti's lover. As the characters remember or imagine Eeva's life, she becomes a receptacle for all the forms love has taken in their lives. Imagining Eeva's passion for Martti and Eleonoora as a child, Anna is influenced by her own unshakable sense of loss as she continues to miss the child of a former lover. Eleonoora, who does not consciously remember Eeva, has co-mingled memories of mother and nanny, but her deep-rooted fear of abandonment keeps her emotionally wary. Even now, while dreading a life without Elsa, whom he has truly loved, Martti remembers Eeva with a mixture of longing and remorse. How much guilt should Martti, or Elsa, feel for what ultimately happened? Is blame even relevant? Was the nanny a surrogate wife and mother or a usurper? Eeva remains tantalizingly elusive as she becomes more real, a girl from the country swept up by the cultural changes of the 1960s. The emotional intelligence of the prose avoids melodrama to develop authentic poignancy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590515006
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 3/20/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,430,927
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Riikka Pulkkinen studied literature and philosophy at the University of Helsinki. Her debut novel, The Border, sparked international interest when it was published in 2006. Her second novel, True, will mark her English debut. Riikka Pulkkinen received the Kaarle Prize in February 2007 and the Laila Hirvisaari Prize in May 2007.
Lola M. Rogers is a freelance translator of Finnish literature living in Seattle. Her published translations include selected poems of Eeva Liisa Manner in the anthology Female Voices of the North, published by Praesens of Vienna; the graphic novel The Sands of Sarasvati, based on Risto Isomäki’s novel of the same name, translated with Owen Witesman for Tammi of Helsinki; and Purge, by Sofi Oksanen, for Grove/Atlantic.

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Read an Excerpt

Grandma doesn’t know Anna’s thoughts. Suddenly, without warning,
she says:
   “I’ve been thinking about you. What’s going on in your life? Or what was going on, last year, the year before? We didn’t see each other much. But your mother was worried.” 
   Anna turns her head. It’s easy to turn her head and look at the apple blossoms, the climbing rose on the side of the house. Soon it, too, will push out buds and everything will start at the beginning again.
Grandma doesn’t give up.
“What exactly happened? What was going on?” Anna reaches for the cheese too quickly. The knife falls to the ground with a clink.
   She’s spilled wine on the dress. One drop of wine dribbles between her thumb and forefinger as if it knows the way. The stain begins to spread over the dress. If she doesn’t put salt on it quickly it will never come out. It will never leave, no matter how much you wash it. It’s already growing.
   “There was something going on for years, wasn’t there?” Grandma asks.
   “Now I’ve ruined this dress,” Anna says, upset.
   She’s still holding her glass. The glass shakes. Grandma is looking closely at her.
   “What of it?” she says. “So what? It’s just a dress.”
   “But it’s yours, and I’ve gone and ruined it. Do you have any salt?
Should I get some from upstairs?”
   Grandma is thoughtful, as if she were looking right through her.
She opens her mouth to say something, closes it again, doesn’t look away when she finally makes up her mind to say what she’s thinking.
   “Actually, it’s not mine.”

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Riikka Pulkkinen
What are your thoughts on literature in translation, and how do you feel about being read in the US?
Being translated feels weird. When I read the translation, I almost think: oh, now I'm such a good English speaker! The novel itself feels a bit different when translated. It belongs to readers, not me. But that happens to a novel anyway when it is published. Coming from such a small country as I do, being translated in English is a great opportunity. I get a bit dizzy when thinking about it. People from New York to Seattle can read something that was once just an idea in my mind, not to mention Australia, New Zealand, the places I have never visited. In a way that's the ethical dimension of literature: to be able to reach people through writing, to be able to touch them in that way. It is so great that it's almost difficult to comprehend.
When did you start writing and why?
I started when I was eight. I was playing and I realized that I could play through writing as well. My first "novel" was called "Tessu the Dog," and it was the story of a dog that saved the world. Unfortunately, this piece of art has disappeared but in the beginning, writing was playing, imagining, dreaming. It still has those qualities: playing, imagining, dreaming.
What is your method?
First I come up with philosophical themes. Then I try to figure out the structure. The structure of the novel is really important to me. It has to be like a symphony: every part has to resonate with the others.
And of course the language, which is partly the same as the narrative. I feel like I have to invent language from the beginning every time I start to write a new novel. I ask myself: how do these characters speak, do they speak in the present tense, or in the imperfect? Do they hide something from themselves? The plot is the last thing I figure out. The plot is usually constructing itself until the last minutes of the writing process.
Who are your literary models?
I admire J. M. Coetzee's prose—the structural and philosophical wisdom in his novels. Kazuo Ishiguro has also had a great influence on me. And of course Ian McEwan, especially Atonement. I'm also trying to write as wisely as Jhumpa Lahiri.
I have also read my Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but it would probably be too much to say that they have influenced my work. And then there's philosophy. I have studied for many years, and find many philosophers are my literary models.
To what extent is True drawn from personal experience?
You can say that every novel is all about the writer, but then again, nothing in the novel is autobiographical. I have had my sorrows, but I have never been a seventy-year-old woman dying of cancer, as one of my characters is. I try to integrate my experiences into my writing, but I'm also able to imagine things that haven't happened to me. Well, every writer does, I suppose. One could say that the emotional level of the story and characters is always totally experienced by the author, but the reality of the novel is not. This means that nothing that happens in my novels has happened to me, though I know how experiencing these things would feel.
What inspired you to create the multigenerational scope of True?As a writer I want to have a full view of life. One should not be satisfied with less. As a writer one should always have the courage to ask the biggest questions. That's why I wanted to write through several generations. The young ones do not have the same wisdom that the older ones have—that creates a certain dynamic.
How specific is True to the culture and setting of Finland? Of Europe?
Fiction is always more interesting to me as a writer than being specific about actual events and places. So I wanted to create the fictional-historical, or mythical, world of Finland in the 1960s. I think that the sixties became a myth almost as soon as it was happening, and it was this kind of imaginative history that I wanted to capture.You have been a student of both literature and philosophy. Do any philosophical dilemmas come into play in True?
Of course, there's the huge question of time. I'll never get over it. Time as we experience it, experience as it is narrated through time, through life. I would say that the structure of True is inspired by the Heideggerian concept of time: presence is always complicated, affected by the past and by waiting for the future. This is one of the main themes in True. Why call this novel True?
First I actually thought that it would be called Lie. But then I realized that lying is less interesting than different narrations. We can always tell our lives in so many ways, and what is true is a combination of all of our views. Or perhaps the point is that no combination of different stories is ever as true as love is. This is one of the most important messages in my novel: Only by loving does life become real or true. That's why it is called True.
Who have you discovered lately?
I've just recently read W. G. Sebald's novels, and find Austerlitz to be one of the most amazing books I've ever read. The trauma of World War II, the impossibility of remembering correctly, and the coincidence of time and space—all these are fascinating. Specifically, I loved the way time starts to unfold as if it were a place in the universe when the narrator is willing to look at his past directly, without hesitation.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2012

    Emotional intelligence

    Just great!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted June 11, 2013

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    Posted May 2, 2013

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