What Makes Iceland So Great? Ask Its First Lady.

But these days, a sprakki needs health insurance, and Reid focuses equally on the policy factors that generate equality: the paid leave given to both parents, whether or not they’re employed; the health care for life. These coexist with a sense of community responsibility for children, and a freeing absence of sexual stigma — teenagers regularly spend the night at their sexual partners’ homes, and single parenthood is widely accepted.

Reid is careful to point out the ways in which Iceland falls short: Women still do the bulk of managing household tasks, and they make less money than men and hold fewer executive roles at the country’s largest company. But the work-family burdens that hobble women in so many other countries seem less present and prevalent there. Why Iceland has been more willing than, say, the United States to create a social safety net for its citizens is a question that doesn’t get answered here — but Reid makes a compelling case that there can be no equality without one.

At its heart, Reid’s book is also a “love letter” from an immigrant to a country afflicted with the insecurity she labels “Small Nation Complex.” (Most of the country stayed up all night when Iceland won its first Oscar in 2020.) And like all love letters, it shines when it’s personal. The most vivid sense of Iceland’s unique approach to gender comes through Reid’s own experiences: How in her first job there, she walks by the conference room to see the board chair nursing a baby while running the meeting, no one batting an eyelash. How she dutifully rushes to a doctor as soon as she gets pregnant, only to have the physician wave her away with “a quintessentially Nordic, hands-off approach,” and send her to a (free) midwife. How she comes to understand the communal attitude toward parenting by seeing her neighbors leave their babies in strollers on the front lawns of their buildings, knowing that any stranger seeing an infant crying will help out instead of dialing 112 (the European equivalent of 911). Throughout, her newcomer’s delight in Icelandic details will charm readers, from the explanation of the nomenclature (you’ll finally understand the dottir methodology!) to the Nordic idioms (“never peed in a salty sea” for someone with little experience; “quarter to three” for the hookup moment at the end of a night; “Reykjavik handshake” for chlamydia, the unfortunately common effect of too much quarter to three).

That same affectionate tone propels Reid’s conversations with the dozens of modern-day sprakkar she crisscrosses her island to an interview. These talks — over cardamom doughnuts and Christmas buffets — introduce us to a vast and diverse array of Icelandic women: sheep shearers, sewing club members, sea captains, search and rescue directors, the rap collective Daughters of Reykjavik. And they feature memorable moments: the university student council president, originally from El Salvador, whose political ambitions are deflated after a sexism scandal in Parliament; the pro soccer player who travels to Germany and is shocked to see the lesser facilities given to female athletes there; the interviewee who points out that Iceland is more tolerant because of its small size — “most people in Iceland will meet a trans person,” they say, alleviating the fear of the unknown; the knitting instructor turned sex adviser. (If you aren’t convinced that Iceland approaches sexuality differently from the United States, imagine the public reaction if Jill Biden wrote a book featuring a sex instructor, or conducted her interviews in a “hot pot,” or hot tub.)

The catalog of people and issues does in places start to feel like an obligatory political listening tour, as the pressure to be a first lady — attuned to the people’s story and not her own — creeps in at the expense of this particular first lady, who happens to be a lively writer with a tale of her own to tell. At one point, she writes, “But none of this is about me.” It’s a tribute to her voice that you hope her next book is.

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