In Other Words Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson
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