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Paulie Johansson, the protagonist of Sally Franson's second novel, "Big in Sweden," is a tall blond Minnesotan who lands a spot on a Swedish reality TV show. The prize? No money, no lovely parting gifts, but the winner gets to meet their Swedish relatives.

If this sounds like a madcap setup, it is, but it's based on a real one — Franson, also a tall blond Minnesotan, was a contestant on a Swedish reality show in 2021, an experience that she mines here to comic effect.

Paulie is in her early 30s, an age when the ebullient 20s begin to be supplanted by the grinding down of middle life. She loves her boyfriend, but ever since they moved in together the magic has been supplanted by the mundane.

"On Sunday mornings, those golden hours when we used to ravish each other — what did we do now? Fried bacon and meal-planned."

And then along comes a chance at "Sverige och Mig" — "Sweden and Me." In Sweden, the show is known as "Crying Americans," and with good reason. There is a lot of crying in this book. Paulie "bursts into tears" every few pages, which might make the reader roll their eyes, but which also makes, apparently, good TV.

The show's producers encourage this behavior, asking questions such as, "Talk about how far you have come since you first arrived in Sweden. … If you cry, that is okay." And "Talk about what you love about Sweden. … Consider crying as you say this." And "Talk about your friends who have already left the show … If you cry, that is great!"

Paulie obliges. She cannot help herself. She is an emotional basket case, vulnerable and insecure while also deeply competitive and sometimes mean. ("You have too many feelings," one of the other competitors tells her.) Her parents — a homophobic closeted gay minister and an alcoholic mother — have left her with a yearning for a traditional, loving family.

Anyone who has traveled alone to an unfamiliar place will understand the heightened state of awareness that Paulie experiences during her five weeks in Sweden. Everything there is so different, so clean, so beautiful! The people are so kind! The producers are so sexy — well, one of them is.

Franson's writing is smooth, filled with apt metaphors and zingy one-liners. Watching a burly Swedish man cry was like "watching a bear use a fork and knife." A meek woman's posture was "as bent as a hanger." A breeze swept through an open window "like a burst of laughter."

The book shifts so quickly from one scene to the next that the reader begins to crave a bit of summary — does everything have to be shown? The narrative is so detailed it starts to feel as though the five weeks in Sweden unfurl in real time.

Big in Sweden
Big in Sweden

Franson is skilled at mixing slapstick with serious. There are pratfalls and belches, fisticuffs and stolen kisses and so much drinking. Everything is exaggerated. But at the same time, Paulie's desire for a family connection is deep-seated and moving.

"Big in Sweden" is funny and mostly satisfying, certain to be big here, and a worthy successor to Franson's "A Lady's Guide to Selling Out," which is being developed for Netflix by Meg Ryan.

Laurie Hertzel reviews books for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. She is at

Big in Sweden

By: Sally Franson.

Publisher: Mariner Books, 320 pages, $28.

Event: 6 p.m. July 2, American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls. Free.