No one assigns the book I review each month; I’m happily on my own. I always hope to choose a book I can excitedly promote to other readers. (There’s no red pencil-wielding English teacher in me, eager to point out failures of tone, structure, or plotting.) I took a risk this month with “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman.
There was nothing about it that drew me in—a Swedish blogger’s novel about a solitary, irascible compatriot who is hell-bent on suicide—yet I was intrigued by the enormous number of readers (thank you, Amazon) who adored it. Thousands of them. So in the interest of bringing variety into my column, I went for it. Backman tells us, “Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise,” and that is what happened to me with Ove.
Ove is a retired, 59-year-old widower who lives in a row house in a small development and drives a Saab. (If you don’t think the make of the car is important, you don’t know Ove.) He’s the kind of man who wakes up automatically every morning at quarter to six and starts his day. He likes screwdrivers and oil filters. He faithfully bleeds radiators. He’s a man who regularly grumbles, “Nowadays nobody can …”
Life offers nothing to Ove, and he plans to do something about it. His boss had announced one day that he no longer needed to come to work, so his days are empty. He has no children and his beloved wife Sonja has recently died. “If anyone had asked, he would have told them that he never lived before he met her. And not after either.” Yet Ove is not very competent at ending his life. It’s not his fault, though, as much as it is the interruptions to his attempts by the locals.
Backman drums up a mix of characters (human and feline) that are delightful. A new next-door neighbor, Parvaneh, whom Ove calls the Pregnant Foreign One, is a lively Iranian mother. She views Ove as an indispensable chauffer, handyman, verbal sparring partner, and as the need becomes clear, driving instructor. Her two little girls are singularly strong-minded about their neighbor. A young man who’s just told his homophobic father he’s gay moves in with Ove. A cat that Ove rescues is ever-present, with a hilarious range of emotive reactions to his owner’s actions.
It seems that beneath Ove’s gruff exterior, which Backman plays with gleefully, Ove is a man who is decent, kind, and helpful. Readers can figure out early on that these people will bring life back to Ove, but that in no way spoils the surprisingly touching way Backman lets that unfold. Yes, it was tough reading the end of this heartwarming story with the tears in my eyes; I didn’t expect to, but I fell in love.