Book Review: The Solitaire Mystery
Christine Foster Meloni
The Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder is best known for his hugely popular Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy, in which he took the challenging subject of philosophy and made it understandable and interesting to young people. Published in 1991, it was Norway’s best seller for three years and then became the Number One global best seller in 1995. It has been translated into 55 languages.
Although Gaarder writes primarily for young adults, his books have enjoyed success among adults as well. Less well known than Sophie’s World, his The Solitaire Mystery is another successful crossover. In fact, Gaarder suspects that it is more widely read among adults. It won both the Norwegian Literary Critics’ Award and the Ministry of Cultural and Scientific Affairs’ Literary Prize in 1990.
Gaarder studied theology at the University of Oslo and taught philosophy in a high school in Bergen for many years. Reading The Solitaire Mystery, one soon realizes that the author clearly has a message for the reader: Reflect on the miracle of life. Don’t forget that you are alive!
His protagonist is 12-year-old Hans Thomas. The story begins when his father (Dad) has decided he wants to find his wife who ran away eight years earlier “to find herself” and hasn’t been heard from since. He has had a credible tip: she is working as a fashion model in Athens, which happens to be the cradle of philosophy.
They leave their town of Arendal in Southern Norway and head for Greece. Dad is an amateur philosopher and is constantly asking searching questions, his favorite being “Where do we humans come from?” Dad cannot understand why we humans are so uninterested in our origins, why we aren’t in a constant state of awe at the idea that we are alive. He laments that it is very sad that “people are made in such a way that they get used to something as extraordinary as living.”
Along the way, Hans Thomas becomes immersed in a fantastic adventure (which he doesn’t share with Dad). When they stop at a gas station, a midget suddenly appears out of thin air. He gives the boy a small magnifying glass and tells him they must go to the village of Dorf. Hans Thomas succeeds in convincing his father to alter their itinerary. In Dorf he happens to go into a bakery where the baker gives him a bag of sticky buns. He later discovers a miniature book in one of these sticky buns that he can only read with the small magnifying glass.
Hans Thomas becomes completely enthralled by this book, which he keeps hidden from his father and reads on the sly. The author of this precious book is a sailor by the name of Albert, who recounts his adventure when he was shipwrecked on an island. Initially, Albert thought the island was uninhabited, but then he began to meet its bizarre residents, a deck of cards. He soon learned that 52 years earlier another sailor had been shipwrecked there. This sailor, whose name was Frode, had had a deck of cards in his pocket, and gradually these cards came to life inside his head. Then they all suddenly tumbled out of his imagination and took on a life of their own.
After meeting the individual cards, Albert met Frode, their creator. Frode was frustrated with the cards because they were not interested in where they came from. That is, all of them with the exception of the jokers:
“A joker is a little fool who is different from everyone else. He’s not a club, diamond, heart, or spade. He’s not an eight or a nine, a king or a jack. He is an outsider. He is placed in the same pack as the other cards, but he doesn’t belong there. Therefore, he can be removed without anybody missing him.”
The jokers thought too deeply. They were sensitive to their surroundings. Their senses had not been dulled. This set them apart.
Dad is also set apart in his world. He is a joker in that he has not lost the sense of wonder at being alive. He is still like a child in this respect.
“As long as we are children, we have the ability to experience things around us—but then we grow used to the world.”
These two stories, the frame story of the journey to Athens and the inside tale of the life of the cards on the magical island, run parallel throughout the novel.
This book is well written and fun to read, but it also raises interesting, serious questions for the reader to contemplate.
After reading Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, one might be curious to know what else this philosopher-turned-novelist has to say. Gaarder is adept at presenting serious philosophical questions in a fairy tale format in order to engage the attention of young adult readers as well as adults.
Gaarder, Jostein. The Solitaire Mystery: A Novel about Family and Destiny. (trans. Sarah Jane Hails.) New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996. Paperback.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.