In Other Words Will­ful Dis­re­gard by Lena An­der­s­son

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Ester Nils­son, the pro­tag­o­nist of Will­ful Dis­re­gard, is what some peo­ple might call too smart for her own good. Ester is de­scribed as a thirty-one-year-old poet and es­say­ist who “per­ceived re­al­ity with dev­as­tat­ing pre­ci­sion and lived by the un­der­stand­ing that the world was as she ex­pe­ri­enced it.” In less the­o­ret­i­cal terms, Ester is al­ways up for an in­tel­lec­tual ar­gu­ment and has never learned that be­tween men and women in the early throes of courtship, words are not prom­ises but sounds to fill awk­ward si­lences. Just be­cause a man says he’s go­ing to call doesn’t mean he will.

Will­ful Dis­re­gard is a mar­velously droll primer that, if handed out as part of middle- school cur­ricu­lum, could pre­vent decades of dat­ing headaches all over t he world. The nar­ra­tive is firmly in the tell- don’t- show mode, which can sound heavy-handed to Amer­i­can ears be­cause scenes don’t tend to un­fold or­gan­i­cally. Though the plot is dressed in aca­demic­sound­ing di­a­logue and Her­mann Hesse-level moral in­tro­spec­tion — de­liv­ered wryly at all points by An­der­s­son — this is es­sen­tially a story about a woman who falls for an older man, a fa­mous artist she ad­mires, and then can­not read the signs that should tell her he’s just not that into her. She is so be­sot­ted that for more than a year she in­ter­prets ev­ery com­mu­ni­ca­tion from him as a sign of his in­ter­est. And then when he backs away yet again, she de­cides that he owes her an ex­pla­na­tion for why he has toyed with her af­fec­tions and what it all means. It’s like watch­ing a GIF of a train wreck, in which the crash hap­pens over and over. Truly, Es­ther is her own worst en­emy.

Hugo Rask first en­ters Ester’s life in the au­di­ence of a lecture she’s been com­mis­sioned to give about him. She’s long ad­mired his art­work, but af­ter re­search­ing and writ­ing about him, she’s fallen in love with him sight un­seen. The two strike up a friend­ship of weekly din­ner dates and long con­ver­sa­tions, as well as text-mes­sage repar­tee. From the be­gin­ning, Ester knows that she wants to spend her life with Hugo. We get no such in­sight into Hugo’s psy­che, which we per­ceive only through Ester’s point of view. She ra­tio­nal­izes away his pom­pos­ity and other an­noy­ing char­ac­ter traits, read­ing de­vo­tion into what is likely just a se­duc­tion game to him.

Ester’s foibles and mis­steps could be any­one’s, though the idea of ex­ist­ing in this kind of ro­man­tic naiveté into one’s thir­ties i s, frankly, ter­ri­fy­ing. She is cor­rect when she says Hugo’s be­hav­ior isn’t ac­cept­able and that he should be more pre­cise in how he con­veys his in­ten­tions. But she is too old to still be­lieve that her rhetor­i­cal ar­gu­ments about moral re­spon­si­bil­ity in love will ever sway a man like him. Ev­ery woman — and re­ally, ev­ery man — could be­have like Ester at some point in their lives. Some might call Ester crazy, but she’s just not able to see how her ac­tions come across to oth­ers. Ester, while de­light­ful on the page, would surely be ex­haust­ing in real life. — Jen­nifer Levin

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