[Translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch]
Rating: 3 & ½ Stars
This sweetheart of a novel from Sweden marks Fredrik Backman’s debut into the literary world. Hugely popular in Europe since its publication in 2012, it has charmed American readers as well. Its appeal is transparent – a feel-good book with depth and insight, and just enough orneriness to keep it from becoming too clichéd.
Ove himself does seem a little familiar at first glance – a grumpy man, hopelessly behind the times, fanatically insisting on rules that no one else seems to care about. He’s a man one respects, a man one feels sorry for, a man about whom one might make a light-hearted joke – he’s not necessarily someone you like.
But Ove has a secret. His late wife, Sonja, knew it; and by the middle of the book, the reader starts suspecting it too; long before getting the official confirmation in the final chapter – a confirmation that sends his neighbor, Parvaneh, into a fit of inappropriately hysterical laughter.
The reasons for this book’s popularity are visceral. It strikes an instant chord – on true love, real friendship, the meaning of community – all the right stuff. However, to its credit, it doesn’t gloss over the inherent unfairness of the world; a world where terrible things happen to good people all the time; the systemic indifference of bureaucracies that fail those it’s meant to help; and, where without being actually evil, people exhibit varying degrees of obnoxiousness.
Ove, who has been a fighter all his life, has finally reached the point where he doesn’t want to fight anymore. With his beloved Sonja gone, all he wants is to call it quits, but finds it impossible to do so. People keep insinuating themselves into his life - needing help, needing guidance, needing somebody to fight for them. To a man who has fearlessly done the right thing all his life, it’s not easy to do anything else. Ove may have given up on life, but Life refuses to give up Ove.
The book does stumble here and there. While subtle and understated in its depiction of the different layers of human complexity, the humor does come off as occasionally clumsy and farcical. Backman’s depiction of women and children also borders on caricature. But those are minor flaws when the writing breathes a heart and soul into this story of what it truly means to live the good life.
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