Writing fiction about music can be tricky. Music is sound in time; it speaks to our brains at a pre-verbal level. As a result, using words to describe music can be hard and the literature is littered with near-misses. So it’s a great pleasure as a musician to read a well-written novel centered around music by a writer who “gets it” and who can put the nonverbal about music into words.
Sara Lövestam definitely “gets it” in her YA book, Wonderful Feels Like This. Which is one of the many reasons it was a 2019 GLLI YA Translated Book Award Honor Book.
Wonderful Feels Like This is deep; it works on many levels and addresses numerous topics. It’s about the siren call that music sings to those of us who, like young, mixed-race protagonist Steffi Herrera, are musicians—who have to be musicians, because it’s impossible for us to resist music’s lure. And it’s about the process of becoming a musician, and what the life and career of a local one can look like.
Cuban-Swedish Steffi lives in small-town Björke. A talented square-peg-in-a-teenage-round-hole living in a homogeneous society, she loves the 1940s jazz that no one around her appreciates. She can play, too, both her beloved bass, and the clarinet, a second instrument she picks up, almost on a whim. At school, her teachers are oblivious to the fact that she is being hounded daily by relentless bullying of the worst kind. At home, her older sister—who is struggling with her own sexual identity—mistreats her as well. But one day, hearing music float out the window of a long-term care facility, Steffi meets near-nonagenarian retired string bass player, Alvar “Big Boy” Svensson. Their shared love of jazz cements their unlikely friendship.
Alvar turns into the mentor that Steffi so greatly needs. He reminisces about his musical past, his love for the piano-playing Anita, and his journey from small-town boy to “hep” Stockholm jazz player. Half the book is a historical novel set in the past. It’s about a country during World War II that we read about less often in this context—Sweden—and about American-style jazz in Europe during that era. At the same time, it’s a YA coming-of-age story set in the present. Most of all, it’s a tale of warmth and kindness, about identity and finding one’s voice.
It is, indeed, Wonderful.
Written by Sara Lövestam
Translated from the Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg
2017, Flatiron Books
Awards: GLLI YA Translated Book Award Honor Book; Kirkus Best Teen Books of the Year
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of 60 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German, and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her recent translations, Luisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her most recent translations are For Justice: The Serge and Beate Klarsfeld Story, The Sisters #7: Lucky Brat, Chloe & Cartoon, Brina the Cat #2: City Cat, and Alter Ego.