Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi
(We'll just ride past)
by Ellen Strömberg
reviewed by Sophie Ruthven
In a small town in Swedish-speaking Finland, Manda and her best friend Malin are bored. Things might have been better if they'd grown up in New York – well, probably. There's only one corner shop worth visiting; their classmates have barely ever changed, and, as for parties... well. They're in need of something more than the annual barbecue in the play park. They're thirsty for adventure, preferably a great romance, one so great it lasts forever – or will make for a fantastic story at any rate. There’s one small problem though: to everyone else, they're just 'the Bikes', two girls who are always alone together, always on their bikes. Oh, and there isn't really anyone here worth having a romance with, either. Then they meet John, the handsome new pizza-maker, and find out he's in a punk band with the rebel Pugg, who Malin thinks is pretty cool. One romantic target for each friend, perfect. They hear about a party which will have a somewhat older crowd, and – crucially – Pugg and John. Malin suggests the two friends head there under the pretext of just riding past on their bikes and just happening to see the event, not planning on gate-crashing. At all. Once there, Malin seems to think everything is going swimmingly, but Manda is unsure. Her interaction with John is confusing to say the least, and the more she hears about him from the older girls and the more she chats with him online, the more unsure she is about her feelings. But this was the plan, right? Manda and John?
This is Strömberg's third novel, and the result is confident and joyful, full of both big and little feelings. It's a story that left me with a warm fuzziness inside: Manda and Malin's world is such a clear reflection of that time in life where every day holds the possibility of romance and bold new things, and yet you never quite seem to control the means to create the excitement you're imagining. A new person triggers a million possibilities in your head. A new sense of style could take your life in a whole new direction. Yet there's an element of randomness to it all, and all you can do is try to get yourself into the best position for action, before regrouping with your friend under the slide in the forgotten play park.
The reader follows Manda's perspective and sees her confidence grow satisfyingly and realistically throughout the novel, and she ends up making some quite mature decisions when it comes to her feelings, albeit with some decent moments of shock and embarrassment along the way. However, although Manda's personal development features prominently, Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi is also a novel about friendship. Strömberg really captures what it's like to hang out with your best friend at every moment you can, in places that are perhaps mundane to adults but magical to you, making your own myths and histories. An intense, inseparable friendship which can perhaps only exist during the latter years of high school, when you start to form your own world apart from your family circle. It's also the time when, although we might be becoming aware of how little we know, what we do know can be humorous gospel, such as Malin's assertion that 'A romance is a little bit forbidden, perhaps, and exciting and like... passionate! A boyfriend is someone who plays hockey and makes out with you a bit on your freshly made bed.'
The friends complement one another in their adventures, with Manda's insecurity being understandable and relatable, as is Malin's desire for more from their lives socially. As Manda appears to replace Malin as the effortlessly cool one (especially in Malin's eyes), this seeming role reversal slowly leads both friends towards a more balanced and nuanced understanding of one another. Malin is lifted down gently from her pedestal, but as a result, both friends find a deeper understanding and connection, and eventually expand their friendship to a wider circle of older girls living their own adventures, whilst maintaining their own special bond.
I asked my own high school best friend how she would describe our relationship back then, in only five key words, and she replied with: 'loving, exclusive, unique, nerdy, special'. A summary which in my mind is entirely specific to our experience, and yet one I suspect many people would probably nod in agreement to, if such a description were attached to their high school friendships. To the word 'special' in particular– and that's certainly Manda and Malin's relationship too. With its warm and real portrayal of friendship and self-discovery, Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi is a real treat for both adult and YA readers.
Vi ska ju bara cykla förbi
Rabén & Sjögren, Schildts & Söderströms (Finland) 2022
Foreign rights: Helsinki Literary Agency
Ellen Strömberg debuted in 2018. So far she has written three novels and one children’s book, and appears regularly in Svenska YLE’s podcast Sällskapet.