Denmark—Evidently Not So Rotten After All

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The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country

Helen Russell

Icon Books, 2016

This book hit a lot of notes for me. I am headed to Denmark for the first time later this year; I am interested in “happiest places” research; and I have a soft spot for that class of expatriate-going-native escapist memoir popularized 25 years ago by Peter Mayle. So I was predisposed to appreciate Helen Russell’s effort.

The setup is clichéd: Russell is a harried, thirty-something media professional in London who finds herself transported, courtesy of her husband’s sudden hiring by LEGO, to central Jutland. Foreigner must make sense of a foreign land. It’s been a trope for centuries, and it still works. The variation in this instance is one of ‘well, here we are, let’s have a look ’round and see what makes this place tick.’

For all her work in media (she was an editor with a stylish women’s magazine), she is not a particularly strong writer (did I mention that she was an editor with a stylish women’s magazine?). In the beginning she tries too hard on the page, producing an overwrought style. The task of acquiring snow tires for her small car becomes a challenge of Brobdinagian proportions. She overplays ther love of local pastries into an embarrassingly bad attempt at writing a Liz Lemon-style overeating scene. As a consequence, she unnecessarily feeds the unfortunate stereotype of ditzy, incompetent women who are just trying to get pregnant and wouldn’t mind a glass of wine in the meantime.

However—it gets better. After a few chapters Russell finds her voice and, by turning the focus increasingly away from herself and toward the country and people around her,  grounds the book and makes it much more compelling. Her armature is a simple one—why are these people happy? So, so happy? Especially compared to a thirty-something media professional from London who should feel like she has it all? Russel’s exploration of this, from the sex-themed adult pool parties at the local rec center to foraging in the woods for Christmas decorations, from touring the local preschool to being lectured for flying a foreign flag, has a transformative effect on her and the reader.

She does not sugarcoat Denmark (in this she differs from Mayle and Frances Mayes’ treatments of their adopted lands). It is cold and dark, with oddly unsettling trends that run against the deeply ingrained characteristics of trust, support and equality. But she does begin to adopt some of its practices, and in so doing finds herself relaxing into a trusting happiness herself. It’s a foregone conclusion that she will remain in her adopted country. The reader who does not already live there will finish this book and envy her for that.