Desirée (meaning "desired one") Johansson is the ironically named daughter of Ella Johansson—ironic because Ella abandoned her at birth. In the Swedish welfare state of the 1950s, Desirée's birth defects (cerebral palsy, epilepsy and physical deformation) meant a life in institutions. Now nearing 50, she is increasingly wracked by pain and seizures, and the only person she ever loved, her doctor, Hubertsson, is dying. But she is an April witch—a weak body with a strong mind—and when Hubertsson informs her of her mother's later foster children, she employs her paranormal powers of omniscience to learn about Ella, her "betrayer," and her three foster sisters, the "thieves" of the life that should have been hers. Though unable to walk or speak, Desirée follows their movements, and it is their stories that make up the bulk of this suspenseful, insightful novel. Margareta had been abandoned, while Christina and Birgitta's real mothers were abusive, and appeared irregularly in their childhoods with terrible results. The girls were separated as teens after Ella's stroke, for which difficult Birgitta is blamed: Christina and Margareta believe Ella discovered that Birgitta was the town slut, and that it nearly killed her. While Margareta has become a physicist and Christina a doctor, and Birgitta has evolved through drug addiction to alcoholism, none of them know about their other sister—yet. Journalist Axelsson caused quite a stir with this novel in her native Sweden, ripping into Scandinavian conformity like a latter day Ibsen, while Americans might see some resemblance to the spirit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Readers who made Peter Hoeg a bestseller should certainly find a place in their hearts for Axelsson. (Apr.)
Forecast:Originally published in Sweden in 1997, this was a runaway bestseller and a winner of the August Prize (it's sold over 350,000 copies to date). Both Barnes and Noble and Borders are giving it special attention, and news from the independents suggests it will be a great handsell.