I’ve never been to Denmark, though I’ve traveled to Sweden and Norway in the past with friends and family, so I’m not completely inexperienced when it comes to Scandinavian countries. Due to my love of memoirs and yearlong projects, The Year Of Living Danishly had been on my radar for a while. When I saw it featured again during Nonfiction November (I think on Based On A True Story), I knew it was finally time to pick up a copy.
I definitely wasn’t disappointed – this memoir is the perfect mix of laugh-out-loud moments, interesting facts and personal life experiences. It was funny, inspiring and thought-provoking, all while making me want to follow Russell, uproot my life in LA and move to Denmark. Who’s with me? Though transnational moves may not be on your horizon (and being realistic not on mine either), I encourage you to read this book as a great way to explore Denmark from the comfort of your own home.
The Year Of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
Published: May 19th 2015
London-based journalist Helen Russell was living a career-focused life in the UK, trapped by long working hours and overwhelmed by the many demands of her high-paced life. When her husband was offered the chance to move to Denmark and work for Lego, Russell went from initially skeptical to seriously intrigued once she learned that Denmark has routinely been named as the happiest country in the world. Why were people in Denmark so happy, Russell wondered? In this memoir, Russell captures the adventure of moving to a new country and setting up a new life, while providing lots of interesting insight into what might make Denmark such an ideal place to live in.
What I Liked
The humor. There are not many books that can make me physically laugh-out-loud while reading silently alone in my room. This memoir was one of them. The awkward moments Russell finds herself in while adapting to her new life in Denmark are abundant and hilarious. Like her experience during her first Danish language class, when Russell tries to tell her professor that she enjoys watching Danish Drama The Killing only to realize that pronounced and spelled in slightly different ways, killing in Danish means alternately kitten, chicken and bitch. Russell has a sharp, self-deprecating wit and often pokes fun at her own inability to assimilate comfortably into Danish social norms, while also wryly commenting on her husband’s reactions to the various new and puzzling aspects of Danish society to which they are introduced. The cast of characters that make up Russell and her husband’s social life in Denmark – like the neighbors Mr. Beard 1 and Mr. Beard 2 and her friend American Mom – provide funny anecdotes as well.
All the interesting facts I learned about Denmark. Russell divides the book into 12 chapters (one per month for her first 12 months in Denmark), with each chapter having a loose focus on one of the aspects of society/culture/economics that may contribute to the country’s status as happiest on Earth. I found the chapters on work/life balance (Chapter 2) and child-rearing (Chapter 8) particularly interesting, though also enjoyed reading about the various other topics that Russell investigates including hobbies, pets, vacationing, food, healthcare, education and more. One of the most surprising facts I learned about Denmark is that education is completely free, and that in fact students are paid to attend college in a varying amount that depends on their choice of field and their family’s income. I’m so much more informed about Danish and also by extension Scandinavian culture, and I have to say I’m very very intrigued. Maybe my new 10 year plan should be to turn my blog into a full-time job and then move to Denmark to blog from there. (Sounds like perfect reading weather and a girl can dream).
The memoir aspect. Russell could have written this book as a straight up guide to what life is like in Denmark, but I think her personal story and perspective really contributed to the narrative. I’ve moved around the world a lot myself throughout my life, and I know firsthand that adjusting to a new country really teaches you so much about yourself. It’s the perfect catalyst to some major life changes. Russell was struggling to feel truly happy while living in London. Once in Denmark, some of the depressing personal difficulties she was facing eased and lifted. She goes through a significant life change (no spoilers) while in this new country and sher and her husband end up deciding to stay in Denmark longer than the initially planned one-year. I came to genuinely like Russell and ended up rooting for her to be able to find true happiness in her new home.
What I Didn’t Like
The iffy research studies cited. I work in research, so I’m naturally more tuned in to potentially spurious studies, as well as conclusions that may show correlation but are presented as causation. Some of the studies cited by Russell about different aspects of life in Denmark sounded more rigorous or believable than others, and I wished I had the time to investigate them further – which was impossible because to her credit Russell mentions many different studies throughout the book. Ultimately, the questionable nature of some of the studies cited by Russell did not ruin my enjoyment of the book. Most of Russell’s conclusions about Denmark and the happiness of its people were pretty common sense anyways, and believable in their own right.
A funny, informative memoir that will teach you so much about Denmark while inspiring you to reconsider aspects of your life that may not be contributing to your happiness.
Reading The Year Of Living Danishly inspired me to get a buttery pastry of my own this past weekend. As if I needed any more encouragement.
Denmark is famous for its delicious pastries, and Russell made my mouth water more than once with her descriptions of flaky confections.
Have you read The Year Of Living Danishly? What did you think? Leave your opinion in the comments!
This post includes affiliate links from Book Depository.