By Heidi Simmons
A Man Called Ove
by Fredrik Backman
Human beings are not designed to be alone. Often, when people lose the one they love, it is a lonely and painful adjustment to continue on with life. In Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (Washington Square Press, 337 pages) a heartsick man discovers a new love for his community.
This Swedish book was published in 2012 where it became a bestseller. Three years later, “Ove” was published in the United States, and is currently the number one fiction paperback on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list.
The story opens as a widower is finalizing details to take his life. When he’s about to hang himself, new neighbors moving into the house next door, interrupt his suicide attempt. A couple with two little girls and another child on the way, crash into his mailbox and are about to smash into the side of his house. The man, called Ove, removes the rope from around his neck and heads outside to stop any further damage.
Annoyed and angry at the new neighbors for breaking the rules and not being a decent driver, Ove pulls the young man from the vehicle and backs up the car and trailer without any further problem. The family is grateful for Ove’s help.
This starts an unlikely friendship. Ove is a stickler for rules, only drives a Saab, and has no patients for idiots. And, he thinks just about everyone is an idiot! The new neighbors are friendly and kind. However, the husband is a klutz and incompetent at household tasks and chores.
Ove finds himself helping the family out in more ways than just constantly fixing things. He babysits, teaches the wife to drive and slowly, almost against his will, becomes an extended family member.
Soon, with the help of the family next door, Ove starts to recognize the needs of those in his community. They come to him for help and advice. At first he hates the attention and only wants to be left alone, but soon he is part of something bigger and he finds himself enjoying life again. Ove begins to honor his wife’s memory by embracing people like she had.
The charm of this book is how the reader learns about the man called Ove. In the beginning, we recognize he is the quintessential curmudgeon. He is angry at the world. He cannot bare living without the woman who made all of life tolerable. But, Ove is not a bigot, unfair or unjust. He has suffered a great loss and this makes him sympathetic.
As the book reveals Ove’s backstory, how he met his wife and what he did to get her to marry him, he becomes even more understandable and lovable. He is a man of few words, but also a man of honor, integrity and dignity.
A Man Called Ove, is first of all, a romance. It is also a story about unconditional love, tolerance, acceptance of the other, and standing up for what is right.
That said, the book is oddly written with a strange omniscient voice that makes it feel like a fairy tale — “There once was a man named Ove”– kind of thing.
I had a hard time getting into the narrative. I’m not sure if the problem was in the translation of the original Swedish text or the way the author wanted to slowly uncover this unusual man named Ove.
In the first third, the story seems predictable and obvious. But if you stick with the narrative, it is filled with surprises and unexpected payoffs. I recommend being patient for at least 110 pages. It is well worth the wait and the rewards will follow.
Last year, the book was adapted by Swedish filmmakers and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It didn’t win, but this is one of those rare adaptations where I felt the movie was better than the book. However, if you cannot find the film anywhere, don’t hesitate to try the book, because it is a sweet story about the pain, suffering and beauty when we allow ourselves to love fully and completely.