I’d never heard of A Man Called Ove (2013) by Fredrik Backman until my book club decided it was our next book. It is a Swedish novel, translated into English, and it has also, apparently, been turned into a film. As a New York Times bestseller with four and a half stars on Amazon, it seems to be a book that many people have enjoyed. I found the idea of an old, grumpy man finding a community and becoming happier appealing. There were also parts of the book that I enjoyed. However, I also often felt bored, confused, or manipulated. It’s possible this book would have resonated with me if I’d been in a different mood, but it never quite worked for me.
Ove is 59-years-old and he was just forced to retire. His wife and the love of his life died four years ago, and he has nothing more to live for. The book begins with the miserable man doing an inspection of his neighborhood in an obsessive-compulsive way, including harassing his neighbors, before trying to kill himself. And the book continues in this way for quite a while. I felt bad for him, but I did not like him. And I got bored reading over and over again how grumpy he is. When a family moves in next door with a “pregnant foreign woman” and two young kids, Ove is gradually forced to become more a part of the community. He never stops being grumpy but his good sides come out a little more, and he helps others around him.
One issue I had with this novel was the tone. It never quite worked for me. On the one hand, you have what might be a light-hearted novel full of love, tragedy, and quirky characters. But Ove’s suicide attempts were disturbing. As the reader, you never take them seriously because you know they will never work out. But my job has me dealing with suicide frequently, and it bothered me that Backman handled Ove’s suicide attempts with almost a joking manner. Also, Ove vacillated between being a comedic grump to someone really angry and mean. It was hard to get behind him.
Another issue I had with this novel was the characters. They all felt pretty flat to me. Any character development in the book isn’t so much development because the characters don’t change. The reader just learns more about their past as they read more of the book. Jimmy is the stereotypical caricature of a fat person, and the woman with the little dog is particularly evil for no reason. Even Parvenah, a major character is not given much insight.
Finally, what is the meaning of this story? Ove’s failed suicide attempts could likely only be explained by divine intervention. Because God wanted Ove to become part of something again before he died? Because Ove had people to help before he died? (I think I like that explanation the best.) Backman says over and over again that Ove did not live before he met his wife, and he failed to live afterward. Is this supposed to be the height of romance? Isn’t it disturbing when someone is wholly dependent on another for the entire value of their life?
On the whole, I was frustrated more than I enjoyed this book. My favorite parts were probably with the cat, but even the cat was weirdly unnatural. Backman does throw a lot of tragedy at Ove and has him come out the other side with friends and a better outlook, which is nice, but there’s nothing in the story that really grabbed me.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.