book review: Valerie by Sara Stridsberg



translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
FSG, August 2019


When you read a quote unquote highbrow book, the impulse (at least for me) is usually to try to write a quote unquote highbrow review.  Because there isn’t much dignity in reading an intelligent book like Valerie (published as The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) and dismissing it with pedestrian critique, but whatever, I’m going to do it anyway.  I found this both boring and deeply annoying.

I can never really figure out what I want from novels which fictionalize the lives of real people.  Because my impulse is to lean more toward more factual, biography-style novels (see: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault), but then it’s almost like… why don’t I just read a biography of that person?  Why am I even reading a novel if I’m so opposed to creative liberties?  But I have also been known to enjoy more abstract fictionalizations (see: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf) which take a real life person and imagine, fictionalize, or dramatize details of their life, so it’s not something I’m inherently opposed to. Valerie falls into the latter category to an extreme.  Sara Stridsberg in her forward admits that this is not an attempt to recreate the details of Valerie Solanas’s life; it’s more of a ‘literary fantasy’ where she loosely spins together fragments of Valerie’s life and ideologies, while deliberately skewing facts (changing Valerie’s birthplace from Ventnor to Ventor; moving it from New Jersey to a desert in Georgia).  It just… didn’t work for me.

This is a book of ideas with nothing to ground them; the narrative threads are too few and far between for me to have anything to really grasp onto.  I didn’t understand for the longest time why Stridsberg was bothering to disguise this fragmented, meandering, awkward novel as the story of Valerie Solanas, and while I did feel like that question was eventually answered, it was too little too late for me.  I read this entire book thinking ‘I don’t care, I should probably care, why don’t I care, does the author care at all about how disengaged I am?’

But I do feel the need to remind everyone that I use the star rating system subjectively and I use my reviews to explain why I react to books in a certain way; I don’t think this is a ‘bad book’ and I would dissuade no one who’s interested in it from giving it a shot.  It just did nothing for me.  Though the US cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in a while, so there’s that.

Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of Valerie here on Book Depository.


34 thoughts on “book review: Valerie by Sara Stridsberg

  1. Ah, bummer. As much as I enjoy 1-star reviews, this doesn’t sound like it’s what I was hoping for from this book either. Removing from my TBR for now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This may just be my favorite cover of the year so I am right there with you!

      To be honest I didn’t know a ton about the subject going in – I knew that Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol and wrote the SCUM Manifesto, but that’s about it. I can’t say I learned much from this book, which in and of itself is fine, but I’m not really inspired to do a deep dive into researching the real life Valerie either? Which is usually how I feel when I read fictional accounts of real people.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Woah! I had no idea that’s who she was haha. I think I might be more inclined to find a good biography rather than read this fictional account. That is so intense! Even more of a bummer that the book was a let down, it sounds like they would have had plenty to work with without making such major changes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I would definitely recommend that course of action! I can’t think of any biographies to recommend, but I do think it’ll be interesting to pick up a copy of Valerie’s SCUM Manifesto at some point down the line.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha, I always feel the same way about ‘highbrow’ books – ‘I hated reading this’ never seems sufficient. I also feel conflicted about biographical novels. Gaynor Arnold handles this well, I think (in Girl With A Blue Dress, which is about Dickens, and After Such Kindness, about Carroll) by changing the names of the real historical people involved to emphasise the line between fiction and fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right?! I guess I just wasn’t up for the task of convincing anyone that I’m more Intelligent or Correct in my opinions than the author – so I decided to just surrender to breaking the unspoken rule of reviewing and just acknowledge how subjective this all is.

      Ooh that sounds interesting. Stridsberg did a kind of similar thing here by skewing certain facts (moving her home from NJ to Georgia, e.g.) but at the same time we were constantly reminded that this was meant to be about Valerie Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto… the bizarro blend of fact and fiction just never came together for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read some other bad reviews of this one. Fictionalizations of a life are tricky, like you said. I tend to think authors use it as a device to fill in gaps in the record for a smooth or more entertaining narrative or where they’ve let their imagination run wild with some details that aren’t actually known. But this sounds kind of weird…why change the spelling of a town by one letter? I don’t get the significance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ohhh that’s interesting – do you remember where you read negative reviews? I’ve only seen positive ones for this book, I need to find my people!

      But yes absolutely – if you approach a novel about a real life person expecting sheer biography you’re clearly reading it for the wrong reasons, which I try to remind myself whenever I’m frustrated by the author’s creative liberties running amok. But I don’t understand the significance either – or moving Ventor/Ventnor to a desert in Georgia (especially when there are no deserts in Georgia so WHY) rather than NJ… I don’t get it!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was on other book blogs, but I can’t remember whose now!! I hope your people can find you anyway, haha 😉 But it sounded kind of awful, actually. Your review was more diplomatic, the others were more explicit that it’s bad.

        That didn’t even click with me for some reason, that of course there aren’t deserts in Georgia, I was so annoyed by changing one letter and keeping a town name the same otherwise. This just sounds so weird.


  4. Ugh. I feel very much like you when it comes to reading novels about real people. (And I’m actually reading one right now.) I’m more likely to read a novel than a biography so I get why authors write fictional biographies. But when you’re changing facts and places and the story itself, why not also change the names and make it a novel all the way?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s it exactly! That’s what I kept coming back to with this book – why is she trying to make this Valerie Solanas’s story at all when she could just change the name?

      Which one are you reading?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m reading Lampedusa by Steven Price right now. I’m quite enjoying it but I know absolutely nothing about the real life story behind it. I’m waiting to finish it before I find out more about how true it actually is!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This is so interesting, because I’ve never heard of this woman but she sounds like she had a super fascinating life. But I totally agree with you with regards to expectations of novels about real people…I actually really don’t like reading biographies so am more likely to read fiction, but I’d probably be annoyed if it wasn’t true to life, so like…idk.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right??? I never reach for biographies either, but then when I start reading a novel like this what I’m looking for is biographical detail so it’s like… what do I want, exactly?? I frustrate myself. But yes, Valerie Solanas is a fascinating person that I would like to learn more about in a factual capacity… eventually! And I do want to read the SCUM Manifesto, I feel like that will be a wild ride.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh, I hated this SO much. I really don’t know what you’d make of it to be honest. You might get on with the weirdness better than I did (not that I inherently dislike weirdness, but, wow did I not gel with Stridberg’s style of weird) but you might also be frustrated by how disjointed this is, because it’s not in the fun way. But yes, best cover!


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