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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bitter Bitch

Maria Sveland

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To purchase Bitter Bitch

Title: Bitter Bitch
Author: Maria Sveland
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Bitter Bitch - US
Bitter Bitch - UK
Bitter Bitch - Canada
Bitter Bitch - India
Bitterfotze - Deutschland
  • Swedish title: Bitterfittan
  • Translated by Katarina E. Tucker

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Our Assessment:

B : odd mix of the self-indulgent and journalistic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Dagens Nyheter . 19/3/2007 Ulrika Milles
Expressen . 16/3/2007 Nina Lekander
The Guardian F 5/2/2011 Lucy Ellmann
Publishers Weekly . 25/4/2011 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Missta inte detta som en bok om att kärlek inte finns, att barn är en black om den feministiska foten, och män ondsinta förhandlare. Den handlar om ensamheten som en ekande grotta inom den som ser orättvisor som förnekas. Männi­skor födda i överklassen förnekar klasskillnader, män förnekar oftast orättvisa könsskillnader. Det gör det svårt att definiera vad kärlek är när den ständigt döljs i ursäkter och drömmar om rosor." - Ulrika Milles, Dagens Nyheter

  • "För det här är verkligen ingen dum bok (.....) Ramen för Bitterfittan är klassisk och behändig, som gjord för att proppa full med bilder och riktlinjer. (...) Sveland kastar sig skickligt mellan nivåerna -- personligt och politiskt, individuellt och strukturellt -- och visar hur de hänger ihop." - Nina Lekander, Expressen

  • "The trouble is, we like her bitter ! Her bitterness is the only thing she's got going for her. (...) Much of Bitter Bitch reads like a magazine article. Nothing is acted out on the page. Sara's an unreliable narrator, but not in a good way. (...) There's a lot Sveland could have learnt from Jong, but hasn't. (...) Sveland's a journalist, a TV journalist at that, and the trouble with journalists as novelists is, there's nothing there: they can type, but they can't think." - Lucy Ellmann, The Guardian

  • "Over her week's reflection -- some thoughtful, some tedious -- Sara makes a few resolutions about how to best live her life. Not much actually happens; it's close, quiet, and more interested in ideas than in narrative." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Bitter Bitch is Sara: thirty, married now for seven years, and the mother of a two year-old, Sigge. She's also not particularly happy with her life, admitting at the outset:

     I am only thirty years old, but boy am I bitter. I'm a real bitter bitch, a bitter cunt, in fact.
       She thinks she's gotten a raw deal, as life isn't living up to expectations. Especially that whole marriage thing, especially now that there's a kid in the picture. She's a working woman, too, and she doesn't think that hubby Johan is pulling his domestic weight.
       Fed up, she does the obvious: book a one-week vacation for herself in Tenerife, a little get away to think things over. Sure, she'll miss the kid terribly. Her husband, too. But it's all a bit much to handle on-site; far better to escape the cold and dreary Swedish winter and get some sun and me-time.
       Accompanying her is Erica Jong's Fear of Flying -- with its thirty year old heroine whom Sara envies greatly. Indeed, the whole seventies sounds like it was a much better time .....
       The novel covers her week away, with flash-back chapters to her formative (and often unpleasant) childhood and other significant times of her life. She bitches a lot, too, and she has some justified complaints, but her obsession is with how marriage doesn't live up to the romantic and fantastical ideal she thinks society claims for it. Her problems boils down to the fact that: "I cannot stand the shitty baggage that goes with marriage". Certainly, she seems to have failed to figure out how to share responsibilities with her partner in a way that can satisfy her, her anger about Johan's absences festering deep within her.
       You'd think she might have had a clue about this whole marriage business earlier:
     I do not know of any happy families or marriages, none, not even among those closest to me: grandmothers, grandfathers, Mum, Dad, uncles or aunts, friends. Everyone is unhappily married, everyone is deceived by the myth of love.
       Certainly her own childhood household did not set a good example: Dad really was a creep. Sara's own very early sexual fumblings, soon enough with age-inappropriate young men, also suggest a disconnect between sex, love, and notions of family.
       Bitter Bitch is an odd combination of self-revealing memoir and journalistic and essayistic exploration of the continuing battle of the sexes. Sara finds contemporary Sweden is far from the equal ideal, and that male chauvinism is not just prevalent but continues to be completely dominant. The whole child-care situation, in particular, upsets her -- and it's not just Johan that isn't playing along:
Despite persistent campaigns and t-shirts from different public authorities, it unfortunately seems rather impossible to get fathers to take or feel the same responsibility for their children as do mothers. Fathers in Sweden take on average twenty per cent (barely) of the parental leave. And only a small percentage of all couples share the leave equally.
       Obviously overwhelmed by her own experiences, she argues:
The mother role and its heavy, rotten baggage is something no one should have to bear alone. Yet women are still sitting there, generation after generation, abandoned after giving birth. In the best-case scenario, a confused man is standing next to them who has been tricked into believing that he is taking his responsibility as a father by cutting the umbilical cord.
       Obviously, she's feeling a bit neglected (abandoned !), and clearly she doesn't have a family support-system -- parents, siblings, in-laws -- that she can rely on. She's probably even right that she's getting a raw deal -- but considering that she's able to relatively easily take off a week and leave her two-year-old behind (and it's not her first extended trip away from the toddler), and that she and Johan can already dump him off at daycare when they have to work, it's hard not to think that she has it easier than mothers almost anywhere in the industrialized world (which certainly is arguably still not even close to good enough, but doesn't exactly win her sympathy points).
       Sara's incessant whining is problematic not because she doesn't have a point -- women, and especially young mothers, do not get the support they need, and men certainly get off far too easily far too often in far too many respects (especially domestic life) -- but because there's little constructive criticism here, and, despite all the introspection, little self-awareness. Sara's concern comes off as sounding like it isn't with societal inequalities but with why she doesn't get her way all the time (no wonder she longs for the me-generation 70s ...). Typically, a triumph for her is when she finally hits upon the idea of plugging up her ears those nights when it's Johan's turn to deal with the kid, so that she won't wake up as well: turning a deaf ear to problems seems to be her preferred solution (and simply fleeing the best alternative).
       Much of her problem seems to stem from entirely unrealistic expectations. It's hard not to think that her parents' dysfunctional marriage made her over-romanticize the institution to an impossible-to-live-up-to extent. Meeting one of her idols, Suzanne Brøgger (whose mix of fact and fiction in her own work Sveland emulates), Sara is disappointed not to find Brøgger as dismissive of the idea of any couple possibly being happy. But then Sara has pretty radical opinions on the matter:
     This was one of my biggest theories and pet projects, that patriarchy could be likened to a super ideology, a kind of religion which has affected us down to the tiniest element, and as part of this ideology, we were persuaded to marry as a means of smothering all struggle and rebellion. As a result, most stories -- movies, television, books -- are about a longing for romantic love, which is made whole through marriage. A false image, which never includes the dark side, abuse, rape and unpaid, disgusting, boring household chores.
       Certainly that may be how the young Sara -- disappointed by her father, unbalanced by sexually precocious activity with significantly older boys -- might have longingly looked at the institution of marriage. But looking at her present-day situation it's hard not to get the sense that what really ticks her off isn't the abuse and rape (which she doesn't suffer) but the "unpaid, disgusting, boring household chores".
       Admirably, Bitter Bitch allows its protagonist to be entirely unsympathetic. Sara is no maternal ideal -- she loves the kid, but also sees him as a (very big) burden, one that others should share equally (but on her terms ...) -- nor much of a feminist (she likes to spout the ideology, but does little to foster equality in any sense: far too often it seems that what she's after is solely getting her way). The chapters on her formative years are interesting -- but Sveland doesn't let Sara recognize many of the ways in which she was scarred by her experiences. The more journalistic/essayistic attempts at showing how unequal Sweden remains are less convincing, coming across more like tabloid-summaries than argument.
       Bitter Bitch is a very odd and often frustrating book -- but its comprehensive misguided wrongheadedness (whether intentional or not) is fascinating and revealing. Indeed, one has to wonder whether Sveland's effort isn't entirely subversive: by employing such a protagonist (with such a personal history) she arguably undermines (or at least hollows out) all the valid points the character makes, and ultimately Sara's insanely unrealistic romantic ideal of marriage can be blamed for her misery, and once again societal inequality can be excused .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 May 2011

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Bitter Bitch: Reviews: Maria Sveland: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish journalist Maria Sveland was born in 1974.

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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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