The Solitaire Mystery

The Solitaire Mystery

"The Solitaire Mystery" was published in 1990 and written by Jostein Gaarder, Norwegian author of the best-selling "Sophie's World". Its main target audience is young adults, but the themes of the book transcend any age group.

Like "Sophie's World", "The Solitaire Mystery" has a philosophical content, but unlike "Sophie's World", it does not explicitly mention philosophers and theories, thus, the reader of the book may be unaware that he or she is actually engaging in philosophy.


The book follows two seemingly separate stories:

Hans Thomas

A twelve year old boy, Hans Thomas, and his father are driving through Europe on a journey to locate and bring home the boy's estranged mother. Whilst on their journey, a strange little bearded man gives Hans Thomas a magnifying glass, saying mystically: "You'll need it!"

Not long afterwards, Hans Thomas and his father stop in a roadside cafe where Hans Thomas gets a giant sticky bun from a kind baker to eat on his journey. To Hans Thomas's great surprise, hidden inside the sticky bun is a tiny book, with writing so small it cannot be read with the naked eye.

Hans Thomas begins to read the tiny book using his new magnifying glass, and the story then alternates between Hans Thomas's journey, and the story in the sticky bun book.

The Sticky Bun Book

The sticky bun book tells the story of an old baker whose grandfather gave him a drink of a wonderful liquid he called "Rainbow Fizz" ("Rainbow Soda" in the American edition). It came from an island which the grandfather had been shipwrecked on as a young man. On the island lived an old sailor called Frode, and fifty-three other people; the fifty three other people did not have names though, they referred to themselves as the numbers on playing cards (52 cards plus a Joker)

The red suits were all women, except for the Kings and Jacks, whilst the black suits were all men, except for the Queens and Aces. The Ace of Hearts was particularly enchanting, and Frode had quite a crush on her, even though she was forever 'losing herself'. The cards (as he called them) were scatterbrained and childish, and talked in card-related riddles about "when the game ends" and "turning a person face up" etc.

Frode told the young sailor the miraculous story about how the other people had come to be on the island with him: :Frode himself was shipwrecked on the island many years earlier, and had lost virtually all of his possessions, except for a pack of playing cards. As he had no way off the island, he played solitaire a lot to pass the time. After a few months, he started talking to the cards, and even creating personalities for each of them in his head. :Time passed, and through overuse, the pictures on the cards faded and disappeared, but Frode continued to talk to them in his mind. Then suddenly one day, the Three of Diamonds walked by -- a flesh and blood person -- and said hello to Frode as if they were old friends! Frode thought he must be going mad, and as the remaining fifty-two cards surfaced, he became convinced he had gone senile. But since there was no way off the island, he decided he may as well sink himself into his delusion and enjoy the company.:When the new sailor was shipwrecked on the island, it came as a huge shock to Frode that "he" could see and interact with the card people "as well"! It wasn't a delusion! But then it seemed that Frode had simply 'dreamt' them into existence - how could this be so?

The crossing over of worlds

As the plot progresses, the reader sees that the 'two' separate stories of Hans Thomas's journey, and the events in the sticky bun book are beginning to overl

:The cards in the sticky bun book take part in a game, where each says a sentence, and Frode tries to interprets its bizarre meaning. But sentences such as "the inner box unpacks the outer at the same time as the outer box unpacks the inner" and "destiny is a snake so hungry it devours itself" seem devoid of meaning for Frode.

However, the cards' predictions as told in the tiny book begin to reveal details about "Hans Thomas's" own plight to find his mother. It occurs to Hans Thomas that his mother bears a striking resemblance in her personality to the Ace of Hearts in that she 'loses herself' (disappears) for long periods.

Also, throughout Hans Thomas's journey, he has seen the same odd little bearded man following him about (the man who gave him the magnifying glass which proved so useful to read the sticky bun book). But whenever Hans Thomas approaches the little man, he seems to dash away and vanish.

The baffling thing for Hans Thomas is that he stopped for the cake merely by chance, and chose to eat a sticky bun by chance - how is it possible that a tiny book from a random bun is telling him things about his own life?

In the end, it turns out that the man who gave Hans Thomas the sticky bun book was his estranged grandfather, the baker and writer of the sticky bun book, and grandson to the shipwrecked sailor who had met Frode and his cards on the magic island. The grandfather works this out at the same time Hans Thomas deduces it too ("the inner box unpacks the outer at the same time as the outer box unpacks the inner"), yet this understanding is never realised, as the grandfather passes away before Hans Thomas returns to the small alpine village, having reunited with his mother in Athens.

Back in the sticky bun book, we discover that just as the cards had played their prophetic game where they predicted exactly what would happen between Hans Thomas and his family, the magic island begins to close in on itself, fifty-two years to the day after it had sprung into existence. It seems as if it were meant to happen that way ("destiny is a snake so hungry it devours itself").

The poor card-people get eaten up inside the island, and as the island folds in on itself and disappears into nothingness, the young sailor (Baker Hans) escapes on a rowing boat which he had brought. Only one of the 'cards' managed to escape the island: the Joker.

Hans Thomas realises that it is the Joker who gave him the magnifying glass, and who has been following him about all this time. Just as Hans Thomas reads the last sentence of the sticky bun book, closes it and looks up, he sees the Joker slip away into the crowd, and vanish...

Philosophical themes

The book encompasses several philosophical themes; the obvious ones which are covered in the overall plot, but also little snippets here and there. Hans Thomas's father is a smoker but doesn't like to smoke inside his car, and so on their long journey across Europe, they are forever stopping for cigarette breaks, and the father is talking philosophically with his son. These bite-size chunks of philosophy are far easier to swallow than the weighty lectures in "Sophie's World", but are nonetheless potent.

The nature of existence

The nature of existence is a theme which runs throughout, especially the miraculous nature of life itself. The book explores the question of whether it is possible to imagine something into existence. This theme is also found in Australian aboriginal myth, where elders claim that the world was dreamt into existence.

It seems unimaginable that we can make something happen just by wanting it to happen, yet the placebo effect has been well-documented in psychology, and many psychic healers and suchlike will claim that you need to have faith in order for something to work.

Religious Themes

The Christian concept of the creator living within his creation is explored. The seemingly perfect creation is soon destroyed by the Joker, during the "Joker Game" sequence, which is arguably an intended parallel with the Garden of Eden.


The fact that the cards in the sticky bun book predicted the goings on between Hans Thomas's family decades later gives the book a strong theme of destiny: the idea that some things are going to happen no matter what - it is fate.

Fate as a concept also has many supporters; those who believe that some things (or the more stronger claim, that "all" things) have been pre-planned from long ago -- perhaps from the dawn of time. This is a main theme running through theology as well as more pseudo-scientific disciplines such as tarot reading and palm reading.

It certainly seems possible (though highly improbable) that the cards could have predicted the goings-on in Hans Thomas's young life, but the unlikelihood of it all only adds to the mystery and wonder of the story.


* "Kabalmysteriet" (The Solitaire Mystery) (1990) ISBN 0-425-15999-X

ee also

*Jostein Gaarder
*Sophie's World

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