Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, translated by Henning Koch

My book club picked this book and I was excited, as one member had been raving about it for weeks. I understood that it was funny and involved a cat so I was sold. But then at the meeting before it was discussed, a different member said she'd started reading it and it was depressing, which confused me. When I began, I thought it was charming and I really liked the curmudgeon Ove (even if the cat wasn't in the book much at first) and I thought she was crazy. But then, just as I was putting the book down for the night around p. 80, it did all of a sudden turn quite depressing. I worried a little, but I looked again at the blurbs on the cover, all calling the book delightful and humorous, not words commonly used for dark and depressing books, so I continued on with hope, which was rewarded.

Ove is living in his small row house in Sweden and trying to kill himself (trust me, it's actually kind of funny.) But events and people keep getting in the way. First a pregnant woman and her giant lumbering oaf of a husband back over his mailbox with a trailer that they can't drive. Ove must fix it. Then the husband, who has borrowed Ove's ladder, proves his ineptness further by falling off of a ladder and the wife and kids need a ride to the hospital. Then, because he is laid up, the wife needs driving lessons. Meanwhile, on his daily rounds in the neighborhood, checking on things, Ove accidentally adopts a cat, and he meets a teenage boy trying (and failing) to fix a bicycle for a girl he likes. Ove has to fix the bicycle because no one can do anything practical for themselves anymore. As Ove accumulates new friends and obligations, the reasons for his suicide attempts start to fade. (And perhaps the pregnant woman has more to do with that than Ove is aware.) Eventually, after years of letting his wife be his link to the world outside their home, he makes connections himself and starts to stretch his rusty socializing skills.

I completely agree with the reviewers who call the book delightful and charming. Yes, Ove is a curmudgeon of the first order, with strong beliefs that his way is not just the right way, but the only way. But eventually he comes to realize that he needs people and he can live with their foibles and that when you are nice to people, they're often nice right back. No man is an island. The book gives hope without being treacly or saccharine about it. That's something I love about curmudgeons. I find their hopefulness much easier to tolerate than earnest and sickly-sweet hope.

I loved this book. It was tender and thoughtful, it was subtle and clever, and it went places I wasn't expecting, yet set them up beautifully so they weren't shocking left-turns. Everyone in book club loved it which is rare. I can see it appealing to a very wide swath or people, and I think I will be recommending it a lot. it was easy to read, and aside from a weird thing in the Swedish health care system (why a neighbor was being forced into a nursing home), nothing about the translation was difficult to understand. I am very glad I read it. It will hold a special place in my heart. I wish I could hug Ove. And his cat.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

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