“My father died eleven years ago. I was only four then. I never thought I’d hear from him again, but now we’re writing a book together.”
One day, Georg’s grandparents find a letter written by their long dead son, Jan Olav, in the family home. The letter is addressed to Jan Olav’s son Georg. When Georg reads this letter written for him during the last months of his father’s life, he decides to record his reactions while reading it, resulting in the book we as readers read. The Orange Girl is the cooperative result of Jan Olav’s letter recounting the story of his meeting and relationship with “the orange girl”, a girl of whom the reader and Georg only discover the identity halfway through the book, and Georg’s response to that letter.
In true Jostein Gaarder fashion, the story tackles meta questions in the middle of this micro-history about the relationship of Jan Olav and the orange girl: both Georg and his father are interested in the Hubble Telescope and the magnitude of the universe. Moreover, Jan Olav’s purpose in writing the letter is not just to tell his son a story about a girl he once met, but also to ask him a question about life, a question he has been pondering now that he is on the brink of death:
Imagine that you were on the threshold of this fairytale, sometime billions of years ago when everything was created. And you were able to choose whether you wanted to be born to a life on this planet at some point. You wouldn’t know when you were going to be born, nor how long you’d live for, but at any event it wouldn’t be more than a few years. All you’d know was that, if you chose to come into the world at some point, you’d also have to leave it again one day and go away from everything. What would you have chosen if you’d had the chance? Would you have elected to live a short span on earth only to be wrenched away from it all, never ever to return? Or would you have said no, thank you?
Rather like my experience with Through a Glass, Darkly I felt that my teenage self would have loved The Orange Girl more than I did as an adult. As a teen, I loved books that tackled big questions with lots of references to philosophy and physics. I feel I should note that The Orange Girl is definitely the weakest of the books I have read by Gaarder (the others being Sophie’s World and Through a Glass, Darkly). Some of the elements and themes of the stories felt disconnected, like the Hubble Telescope and the “grand question” at the end of the book in relation to the story of the orange girl, which made them lean towards the pretentious instead of the thoughtful. I missed a little of the interconnectedness between story and philosophical reflection that Gaarder usually does so well.
Nevertheless, I did enjoy The Orange Girl, perhaps more so for its micro history of Jan Olav’s relationship with “the orange girl” than for the themes reflected on. As JoV mentions in her review of the book, the story is a little sappy at times, but it evokes a wonderful sense of place and setting. Plus, the orange girl herself is just cute, and quirky, and independent enough to make me like her a lot.