Herra is eighty years old, riddled with cancer, and ready to die. So ready she calls up the crematorium and makes an appointment, but first, she will take some time to review her life–an alarmingly eventful and unlikely life.

If Hallgrïmur Helgason had not based Woman at 1000 Degrees on the life and memoirs of Brynhildur Georgia Bjornsson, the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Helgason serendipitously called her while phone canvassing for his wife’s campaign, it would be easy to think Herra was too incredible, but truth can be stranger than fiction.

With sardonic humor and frank honesty, Herra assesses her life and her many loves. She’s more or less alone–living in a garage, neglected by her children which she thinks is fair since she often neglected them. She recalls the many men in her life, her travels, and her travails. At first, it seems like it will be a sarcastic recollection by an unrepentant and self-indulgent femme fatal, but she’s just warming up before getting to the hard stuff.

And the hard stuff is hard. Her father is seduced by the strong-man appeal of Hitler and enlists in the SS even though he’s Icelandic. The family is separated, her mother going to work as a housekeeper, her father in the army, and Herra sent to an island away from the war. However, when a planned family reunion in Berlin is disrupted, she is stranded, alone, a child who must figure out how to survive during World War II Germany. Her story is harrowing, a remarkable example of survival against all odds.

I enjoyed Woman at 1000 Degrees very much, though it took some doing to get into the story. I nearly quit about fifteen percent of the way through, thinking I didn’t much like Herra and who cares about all the men she slept with, but that’s just because she’s gearing herself up for the tough stuff. She’s not exactly a nice person, she catfishes on the internet, she talks about neglecting her children for men and travel and it’s only when you get to know her story that it begins to make sense.

I received an e-galley of Woman at 1000 Degrees from the publisher through NetGalley.

 

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