I’m not even sure why I’ve been wanting to read this book for so long. There’s just something about a fictional grumpy old man that makes me sure I’m going to laugh and learn about life, so I finally decided to go ahead and pick it up. This is a review of Fredrik Backman’s adult novel, A Man Called Ove.
About the book: Ove is 59. His wife, the only person Ove knows who deserved a good life, died of cancer 6 months ago after years of living with a wheelchair because of a terrible accident. His parents died before he was grown, his childhood home was allowed to burn and then taken from him, and Saab was sold to General Motors. Clearly, Ove has plenty of right to be angry. He’s angry at the young men who have decided he’s ready for retirement. He’s angry at the county officials who want to take his ex-best-fried away from his wife. He’s angry at the new neighbors who’ve broken traffic rules to back a moving trailer up to their house and run over Ove’s flowerbed and mailbox in the process. But anger is what makes Ove productive, and before his aggravating neighbors can lay new projects at his doorstep, his productivity is focused on ending his life because all he wants is to see his wife again. But Ove is particularly bad at suicide, and his growing anger is directed toward other projects in the meantime–projects that’ll make his neighbors rethink their opinions of the grumpy old man next door.
“In the end, there is nothing left but a series of weekdays with nothing more meaningful than oiling the kitchen counters. And Ove can’t cope with it anymore. He feels it in that moment more clearly than ever. He can’t fight anymore. Doesn’t want to fight anymore. Just wants it all to stop.”
This is the sort of book that reminds me everyone has a story. Backman writes with the sort of narration that’s both matter-of-fact and emotional. It’s the sort of story that reminds readers that every seemingly ordinary person in every ordinary neighborhood has a lifetime of intrigue behind or ahead of them, and appearances are never what they seem. Ove is just a man, like any person is just a person, and like anyone else, he’s got an incredible story to tell.
“He’d been a grumpy old man since he started elementary school, they insisted.”
The first and foremost attribute to note about A Man Called Ove is its humor. This is a great summer read because its humor keeps the story light even when it’s running through the most tragic parts of Ove’s past. There’s something unexpectedly amusing about a character so harmlessly abrasive. There’s real bite behind his bark when he needs it, but for the most part he knows his opinions about all the idiots in the world and their backward ways are not opinions that anyone else seems to share–and thus he can’t do much about it beyond muttering at their idiocy. He’s an old soul that doesn’t quite fit in the modern world, and where the edges overlap he stands his ground–he may not fit, but he’s not letting the rest of the world run him over. And it’s funny. Here’s a taste of Ove’s grumpy personality:
“Because nowadays people are all thirty-one and wear too-tight trousers and no longer drink normal coffee. And don’t want to take responsibility. A shed-load of men with elaborate beards, changing jobs and changing wives and changing their car makes. Just like that. Whenever they feel like it.”
This is an example of the running commentary through Ove’s present life. Every person and situation he meets sparks some sort of rude thought, if not dialogue, that outlines the faults Ove sees in the world around him. It’s never offensive because he seems to understand that the problem with his inability to mesh with the world is his own outlying personality. What he has to say about the people around him speaks just as much about who he is as who they are.
But this humor is a weight that balances the parallel seriousness of the tale. Ove doesn’t fit in–it’s funny, but it’s also driving him to extremes. The humor is what prevents morbidity when the differences between Ove and the rest of the world become too great. Then we have statements like these:
“Of course, he was supposed to have died today. He had been planning to calmly and peacefully shoot himself in the head just after breakfast.”
The downside: it’s a slow story. The humor has to keep the reader going because the plot is all but nonexistent and the tension is mild at best until a brief spike of adrenaline near the end. Mixed in with Ove’s present thwarted attempts to die are snatches of his past. His life has one bright beam of positivity–his wife, Sonja–shining through a mess of painful and tragic events. Ove has seen death and destruction and unfairness, and it all plays on the reader’s emotions, but it does little to forward the plot until Ove’s character begins to change at the end of the book. A few details that culminate quickly in Ove’s present tie his past, present, and future together in meaningful ways, but until a few events start happening very quickly at the end of the book, it’s just a nice story with some humor and sadness that doesn’t seem to have much directionality. It’s not boring, but it takes some patience if you’re primarily a plot-reader because this is a character-driven story.
“Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury…We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us alone.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I laughed. But also I regained the will to carry on, imperfect as life can be. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book other than a funny story about a grumpy old man, and I got that, but I got so much more. Maybe this will be the start of a tradition for me–a Fredrik Backman book every summer.
- Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is a tale about a traveling circus that’s told from the future, when the main character is an amusingly crabby man in a nursing home. Although much of the book is focused on the adventures of his younger years, that older, wiser, grumpier version makes some interesting appearances.
- Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper would also be a great next choice for Backman readers. This one features a small cast of troubled characters–a girl ready to die, a man who intends to use science to live forever, and the inventor of time; the book focuses on the benefits of overcoming despair to save oneself and/or someone else.
Coming up next: I’m currently reading Angie Thomas’ debut YA novel, The Hate U Give. This is a wildly popular 2017 release inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s both timely and well-written, inspiring and entertaining. I have a lot of thoughts and it’s probably going to be one of the most challenging reviews to write, but I’m working on it. In this book, Starr, a black teen, witnesses her best friend being killed by a white cop and seeks justice, learning that racism is still a problem in modern US.
What are you reading this July?
The Literary Elephant