I love Scandinavian Noir fiction and film, so when I learned that the adaptation of A Nearly Normal Family, a 2019 book by Swedish author M. T. Edvardsson, was about to be shown on Netflix, I decided I had to read … and watch. This is my review of A Nearly Normal Family with Spoilers, which contains a plot summary, the ending explained, and my thoughts on the adaptation of A Nearly Normal Family on Netflix. You can find all my Page to Screen posts here!
Written and edited by Jen Ryland.
This is a long post. I hope these links can help you get to the right place!
- Content ote for readers and washers
- Jen’s Spoiler Free Review of the book of a Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson
- A list of the Characters in both series and book (spoiler free!)
- A brief plot summary WITH protected SPOILERS for the ending of A Nearly Normal Family, my suspect list, and more
- My thoughts on the book of A Nearly Normal Family vs the six-episode Netflix adaptation. What was different between the Netflix series and the book?
Content note for A Nearly Normal Family
Both the book and the series of A Nearly Normal Family include sexual assault. In the book, an assault is mentioned briefly and the story deals mostly with the aftermath. The Netflix series has more depictions in episodes 1 and 6. Please take care when watching and feel free to email or message me on social media if you have further questions.
Review of a Nearly Normal Family (book)
This part of the post will be SPOILER FREE, so you can read OR watch and try to crack the case yourself!
A Nearly Normal Family is not the typical Nordic Noir that features a main character who is a police officer or a journalist investigating a series of dark crimes.
Instead, the book is an interesting cross between an American-style domestic suspense novel and a dark Scandinavian Noir crime novel.
Main character Adam Sandell is a pastor in the Church of Sweden. He lives in Lund, a city in the South of Sweden, with his eighteen year-old daughter Stella and his wife Ulrika, a lawyer. His upper-middle class existence is shattered when Stella is arrested for murder.
A Nearly Normal (book version) has three parts:
Part one depicts Adam reeling from Stella’s possible involvement in the shocking murder of Christopher Olson, a man in his 30s who is the son of a law professor.
Then Part Two is from Stella Sandell’s POV, as she sits in prison reflecting on the events that led her there.
Part Three is Stella’s trial, told from her mother Ulrika’s point of view.
What I liked about A Nearly Normal Family:
- Adam is a very interesting character. He’s pretty morally flexible for a member of the clergy, lying to the police and destroying what he thinks could be evidence against Stella. Adam definitely gives off unreliable narrator vibes, and he was on my suspect list (more on that below.)
- There’s a philosophical bent to the book that would make it a great book club book. Adam reflects on the morality of lying and how far parents should go in protecting and looking out for their kids.
- There’s a lot of suspense. I had a LONG suspect list, and kept changing my mind, which I think is the mark of a good suspense story.
What I Liked Less About A Nearly Normal Family (book)
- I felt that Stella and Ulrika were not as developed as characters, despite them having their own POVs. (Interestingly, I think Ulrika is way more interesting in the series, and Adam is kind of pointless).
- I was a little disappointed with the ending of the book. You can read further if you are ready for spoilers, and if not, read the book and/or watch the show and come back and discuss!
Plot Summary for A Nearly Normal Family (book)
- A Nearly Normal Family: Characters
- Plot Summary for the book
- Who Killed Christopher Olsen? Protected SPOILERS
- A Nearly Normal Family Ending Explained
- My Questions
Main Characters in A Nearly Normal Family:
The Sandells: Adam, a pastor; Ulrika, a laywer, and Stella; their eighteen year-old daughter
The Besics: Dino and Alexandra, and their daughter, Stella’s best friend Amina
Police and lawyers: Agnes Thelin, a detective; Michael Blomberg, Stella’s lawyer and Ulrika’s lover; Jenny Jansdotter, the prosecutor. Note: the detective is gender-flipped into a man in the series, Anders Thelin.
The victim: Christopher Olsen, whose mother Margaret is a law professor in the book.
Other characters: witness and neighbor My Sennevall, Olson’s ex Linda Lokin, Stella’s therapist Shirene (called Shirin in the series)
Three aPart Plot Summary for A Nearly Normal Family (book)
Part One: Adam’s POV
One Friday night shortly after their daughter Stella’s eighteenth birthday, Adam hears Stella enter the house around 2 am.
The next day, Adam and Ulrika learn that a body of a man in his 30s was found at a nearby playground. Adam finds Stella’s stained clothes in the washing machine.
Stella is taken into custody after a witness saw her at the victim’s apartment on the night of the murder. Ulrika arranges for lawyer Michael Blomberg to represent Stella.
Adam lies to the police and says that Stella was home at 11:45 on the night of the murder. He also goes to the victim’s building to find and speak to the witness.
More evidence turns up indicating that Stella had a relationship with the victim, Christopher Olsen. But to Adam surprise, Stella’s phone and the bloody clothes vanish.
Adam recalls Stella’s troubled teen years, and that he and Ulrika sent her to church camp to try to get her on a better path. At this camp, Stella claimed that she was assaulted by a counselor, Robin, but her parents encouraged her to drop the matter.
Adam goes to see Linda, Olsen’s ex, who says he was violent and abusive. But Linda also thinks that Stella must have killed Olsen. Adam tries to talk to Amina, whom he helped protect after she was enticing and then blackmailing older men and threatening to expose them as pedophiles.
Part Two: Stella’s POV from jail
In jail, Stella reflects on her very close friendship with Amina and a fight they had after Amina confessed to Adam that Stella was smoking weed. This got her sent to church camp where she was sexually assaulted by Robin.
Stella recalls meeting Christopher Olsen at a club. They went to his apartment, where he told her that he had a stalker ex-girlfriend. Stella and Amina both seem interested in Chris and a bit jealous of the other.
Linda, Chris’s ex, also showed up at H & M, where Stella worked, to warned her about him. Stella searched Chris’s apartment and found bondage equipment and a knife. Linda tells Stella that when they were together, Chris slept with her best friend.
In the present Stella tells jail psychologist Shirene that “some people don’t deserve to live.”
Stella recalls that on the day of the murder, she found Amina with Chris. Amina had confessed to kissing him.
Part Three: Ulrika’s POV from the courtroom
Criminal cases in Sweden are decided by lay judges rather than a jury.
The prosecutor’s argument is that both Stella and Amina were having sex with Chris and that Stella stabbed him in a jealous rage.
Stella testifies that she knew Amina and Chris were friends, but that it didn’t bother her. She claims that when she went to Chris’s apartment on the night he died, no one was there. Are both of these statements true? We can discuss in comments.
Adam testifies, swearing that Stella was home at 11:45, well before Chris’s time of death. He denies destroying Stella’s stained blouse. He’s clearly lying about her alibi, but telling the truth about the blouse.
Amina testifies that Stella is her best friend. She says that she and Chris went on a picnic. She willingly kissed him and then he sexually assaulted her.
As she watches the trial, Ulrika remembers Amina coming over after Chris’s death and confessing. Amina said that after Chris attacked her, she pepper sprayed him and then stabbed him with a knife he’d brought for the picnic.
At that time, Ulrika considered calling the police so that Amina could confess and clear Stella’s name, but realized that if there is uncertainty over whether Amina or Stella killed Chris and no real evidence, neither of them would likely be convicted.
On the stand, Amina says that she just pepper sprayed Chris, but didn’t kill him.
Ulrika recalls destroying Stella’s blouse, Chris’s phone, and Amina’s phone, and also throwing the knife in a quarry.
Who Killed Chris Olsen in Nearly a Normal Family?
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Stella is found not guilty.
But yes, Stella killed Chris. This is revealed in the epilogue below.
Epilogue: Stella’s POV
On the night Chris died, Stella was trying to find Amina. She gets a weird text from Amina that Stella is certain was written by Chris.
Stella is outside Chris’s apartment when she sees Amina running down the street with Chris chasing her. Amina has grabbed the knife Christ brought to their picnic in self-defense.
Amina tells Stella that Chris assaulted her, and Stella pepper sprays him. Stella not only relives her own attack at church camp, but is guilty that just as her parents didn’t believe her, she didn’t believe Linda that Chris was dangerous. Chris laughs, and Stella takes the knife from Amina and (presumably) stabs him to death.
Why do you think Stella killed Chris? Book vs movie
In the book, Stella’s motives for killing Chris are murkier. Did she suffer from PTSD? Or was it more or a rage killing? And if so, was it to protect and avenge Amina or more out of her own mix of jealousy, rage, and trauma? Stella admits to anger issues, a bit of jealousy about Amina and Chris, and some guilt that she didn’t take Linda’s warnings seriously.
In the movie, Stella is straight-up saving Amina from Chris. Which makes the killing seem to me like self-defense. This, I think, is a weakness of the way the book was adapted. I don’t know the criminal laws in Sweden, but it seems extremely unlikely that Stella would have been convicted for saving her friend from a man who had assaulted and was chasing her.
Why do you think Amina confessed to Ulrika that she was the one who killed Chris?
The book version of Amina is VERY different from studious law student Amina in the series. In the book, Amina’s parents are strict and, like Stella, Amina is a fun-loving teenage girl who flirts with the dark side.
Amina keeps secrets from her Muslim parents, and Adam recalls that Amina was hanging out with older men, photographing herself on their laps with their pants off, and then blackmailing them. The series does NOT include any of that.
The different ways the murder plays out in the book versus the series:
In the book, Stella tells Amina she’s going to dump Chris, so Amina decides to go on a romantic picnic with him. Amina willingly kisses him but doesn’t want to go further, and when he forces her, she runs away. Stella comes upon Chris chasing Amina and then pepper-sprays and stabs him.
In the series, Chris is apparently a serial drugger and assaulter of woman. No one listens to poor Linda. And it’s a bit odd that NO women come forward after he’s killed.
My Questions About the Ending of Not a Normal Family
What did you think of the characters? I had pretty different opinions in the book vs the series.
Was Ulrika’s high-stakes plan worth the risk? Perhaps guilty about her own reaction to her daughter’s assault several years before, Ulrika wanted to try to save both girls. Or was she unsure of who actually committed the crime?
What did Stella tell the police in jail? Stella finally says she wants to talk to them, and admits to coming home at 2 am, but the book doesn’t really say if she tells the police what really happened to Chris.
Why didn’t Stella or Amina believe Linda? Linda flat-out warned them that Chris was an abusive psychopath. Chris had tried to discredit Linda by telling the girls that Linda was his “unstable” ex.
There’s a strong theme in the book about truth and lies. Early on in the book, Adam says: “lying is an art that few people really master.” Adam lies (unsuccessfully) about Stella’s alibi, but he’s committed to his story. Later in the book, he repeats this phrase almost exactly, adding that Stella has always been a good liar and that sometimes he can’t tell if she’s telling the truth. In the epilogue, is she?
What are YOUR questions? Tell me in comments!
How is the Netflix Adaptation of A Nearly Normal Family Different From the Book?
Given the three-POV format of A Nearly Normal Family, I was curious to see how the book would be adapted.
My thoughts on the Netflix Adaptation of A Nearly Normal Family
My Overall Thoughts book vs. series
- The book has much more nuance
- I think Adam is WAY more interesting in the book. In the series, he looks perpetually confused.
- Ulrika gets much more character development in the series
- The series has much more emotional resonance and clarity but the changes that were made also made the characters feel flatter and less complex
- The legal stuff felt way more watered-down in the series
There will be some minor SPOILERS below!
The narrative in the Netflix adaptation is rearranged, leading with Stella’s sexual assault at church camp (which was transformed into an assault at a school handball camp) as the inciting incident.
In the book, Stella’s assault is more incidentally recalled by Adam, who clearly feels remorse that he and his wife not only discouraged Stella from reporting, but seemed to doubt her story.
Stella’s character in the Netflix adaptation is quite different. In the book, Stella is portrayed by Adam as a troubled fifteen year-old who is prone to lying and experimenting with drugs, which is why her pastor dad and lawyer mom sent her to the church camp.
Ulrika, Stella’s mom, gets way more character development in the series. She abuses alcohol, as does her elderly father, who is in a care home.
The Netflix adaptation flips the narrative and suggest that it was Stella’s attack (and perhaps her parents’ reaction to it) that understandably changed both Stella and the dynamics of her family.
In the book, the Sandell family is quite dysfunctional BEFORE Stella’s attack, with Ulrika cheating and Stella experimenting with drugs. The series seems to suggest that family fell apart afterwards. Ulrika’s affair is in the past in the book and in the present in the series.
I also feel that, in contrast to the book, the show makes more of a stark contrast between Stella and Amina, with Stella being a bit more erratic and unfocused, while Amina is a dutiful law student. This is NOT how Amina is portrayed in the book. You can find spoilers about that in the protected are above.
Chris Olsen, the victim, is more purely evil in the adaptation, made necessary by the way that the assault themes are handled. I explain more in the spoiler section above.
The trial is much longer and more involved in the book. I think this is a weakness of the show, which makes the entire investigation and trial seem a bit like a railroading job.
One of the things I liked most about the series was the way it used the trial as a way for Stella’s parents to show up for her. She feels completely betrayed at their handling of her assault and the trial is a huge emotional turning point in the family. This is implied in the book but much more obvious in the show.
Looking for similar shows to watch on Netflix, Amazon, or Google TV? Check out my post on my Favorite Scandinavian Noir Streaming Shows.
Did you read A Nearly Normal Family or do you plan to watch the series? Feel free to leave spoilers in comments. I can mark them for you so that those who don’t want them can avoid them!