Review: A trophy wife takes sweet corporate revenge in a gripping, dated Swedish noir
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Ask an American crime fiction fan to name their favorite Swedish series and odds are they will cite Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander mysteries or Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander franchise. Less frequently mentioned are a number of female crime writers, among them Liza Marklund, Helene Tursten and Camilla Läckberg. That Läckberg isn’t as celebrated as her male counterparts is particularly glaring; her ten-novel Fjällbacka series, published in the U.S. since 2010, has sold some 26 million copies in 60 countries. From her 2003 debut, “The Ice Princess,” through “The Girl in the Woods” (2018), Läckberg’s series, set in her hometown, stands out for its atmospheric depiction of the Swedish coast, well-drawn characters and (at its best) complex and psychologically nuanced plots.
In the spirit of Swedish mystery writers with rich prehistories, Läckberg brings to her work an economics degree from the University of Gothenburg, work experience as an accountant and a recent history of founding startups, including Invest in Her, a venture capital firm that nurtures businesses run by and for women. Her newly translated novel, “The Golden Cage,” draws directly on that experience, resulting in a book that is in some ways her most personal thriller, even if its putative feminism leaves something to be desired.
Any biographical connection between author and protagonist is hard to discern in the novel’s opening pages. Faye Adelheim, Fjällbacka born and raised, lives a glamorous Stockholm life as the wealthy, cossetted wife of Jack, chief executive of a wildly successful company called Compare. While Faye is devoted to him and their teenaged daughter Julienne, the man is a cipher in the marriage. When he’s home, he’s either hiding out in his home office or sexually dominating his wife; the rest of the time, his business requires him to be away for long stretches.
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Faye fills the time snooping through Jack’s home computer, watching teenage girls being exploited on porn sites he frequents or dining in Stockholm’s trendy Östermalm district, where she one-ups her fellow ladies-who-lunch with the latest designer accoutrements while ignoring her expanding waistline.
Läckberg uses the third person in these chapters, distancing the reader from Faye just as she seems to distance herself from the rottenness at her life’s core. While screening Jack’s porn, “The knot in her stomach grew bigger with each clip she watched. The girls were young, skinny, submissive. Jack had always liked his women thin and young. It wasn’t him who had changed, it was her. And wasn’t that how most men wanted their women? In Östermalm there was no room for aging and weight gain. At least not for women.” Is this a cogent observation on women’s objectification or simply the lament of a 30-ish trophy wife who’s hit the wall?
Alternating with these chapters on Faye’s present downward spiral are flashbacks to the person she was a decade earlier, narrated in the more immediate first person by Faye herself. Newly arrived from Fjällbacka and anxious to shed her murky past, the younger Faye is drawn toward the vibrancy of Stockholm. “That was when my life really started,” she says. “The past clung to my ankles like a deadweight.”
Young Faye first takes up with handsome, kind and reliable Viktor. Later, inspired by Viktor’s friends, she enrolls in an MBA program at the Stockholm School of Economics using her middle name, Faye, after the author of her mother’s favorite book. (Back to that in a moment.) She excels at her studies until she meets bad boy Jack Adelheim — wealthy, sexy, with a whiff of buried family scandal that resonates with the past Faye is trying to outrun. Before you can say feminist throwback, Faye dumps Viktor, quits school and takes up waitressing to support her boyfriend, hiding her brilliance under a bushel while providing Jack and his friend Henrik with spot-on advice on their fledgling business. Soon the two marry, but not before lovestruck Faye inexplicably signs a prenup agreement ceding any interest in Jack’s company, while helping to advance the myth of two maverick, male founders “for the good of the business.”
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By the time a long-legged colleague shows up in a pencil skirt and ponytail, readers will have figured out what time it is, even if gullible Faye has not. When the truth is humiliatingly shoved in her face, heretofore weak-willed Faye embarks on an elaborate plan for revenge — one that’s a little less surprising if you’ve figured out the allusion to her mother’s favorite author.
In a Facebook post some two months ago, Läckberg acknowledged “The Golden Cage” was partly inspired by Fay Weldon’s 1983 novel, “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil,” which spawned a BBC miniseries and a 1989 film starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep. Läckberg has updated the particulars of Weldon’s scabrous satire, transforming the philandering husband into a tech wünderkind steering his company toward an IPO, while the other woman, Ylva Lehndorf, morphs from a romance writer to a chief financial officer whose leadership is crucial to Compare’s launch on the Swedish stock exchange. Ylva is everything that Faye’s not: thin, suntanned, engaged in meaningful work.
The fury and focus of Weldon’s archetypal jilted woman remains. Faye goes through a similar transformation — weight loss, surgical enhancements, meaningless sex with a variety of younger men she can control — all in the service of destroying her ex-husband. But in Läckberg’s reimagining, Faye’s quest also encompasses a genuine impulse toward kinship with similarly abused and underappreciated women. The company she creates as a vehicle for her grand plan says it all: “Revenge. For all our sisters who have been broken down by idiots, all the unfaithful husbands who have cast us off for a younger model. All the men, all the guys who have exploited us, patronized us, and deceived us.” There’s more than a little naivete in Faye’s journey: Revenge’s product lines — hair-care products and perfume — are hardly original, and it strains credulity to think she could so easily get high-profile women and social media influencers to back her. Or are we meant to believe it’s as simple as her best friend says: “Vengeance sells”?
While “The Golden Cage” is at times a sexy, deliciously dark journey, its black-and-white perspective on men and women in love and business seem even more dated in the 21st century than Weldon’s romp was in 1983. And if Faye’s weaponizing of her body and business chops weren’t suspect enough, Läckberg’s ignorance, willful or otherwise, of Swedish divorce laws and securities regulations undermines some of her key plot points. Surely Läckberg’s international fans, as well as her presumed target audience, readers of “Gone Girl” or “Big Little Lies,” deserve better — even as they gleefully cheer the final twists of both the plot and the knife in Jack’s fleshy, duplicitous back.
The Golden Cage
By Camilla Läckberg
Translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith
Knopf: 336 pages; $26.95
Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.
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