Swedish author Frederick Backman was repeatedly rejected in his attempt to publish his novel, A Man Called Ove. One publisher told him his writing had “potential” but that they saw no commercial potential to the novel. So much for opinions. It’s been adapted to stage and screen (the movie is available with subtitles in the US). And it’s been translated into 38 languages. Sales are in the millions.
Backman has a blog entitled “I AM a Man Called Ove.” So now we know how he writes so expertly about an old grouch.
Some people don’t like the book because they don’t like the title character. It’s about an old curmudgeon, Ove, who seems to like no one except his wife. She is his guiding force, his reason for making right decisions. “What would Sonja think?” he frequently asks himself when considering a particularly unfriendly response to the neighbors.
My main quarrel with the characterization of Ove is this: He is 59. What? THAT’S YOUNG! Maybe I'm experiencing age bias--on my part.
The style could be described as plodding, but that’s the way Ove thinks. With the limited third person point of view, Ove’s thoughts are all that we are privy to.
As the main action begins, he’s busy installing a hook in the middle of his living room ceiling. It needs to be strong—no shoddy workmanship like people do these days. As far as Ove is concerned, no one does things right these days—no acceptance of responsibility, no pride in hard work, no following of rules.
It's soon revealed (as the alert reader will suspect) that the hook is for hanging himself and that Sonja has been dead six months. He wants to join her. He visits her grave every week, leaving flowers in the snow, where he knows they will die. He pays for flowers that will soon die despite his penny-pinching at every opportunity. From this, we know that love overcomes a lot of his traits that would make him irredeemable as a character.
Ove makes several suicide attempts, and they are all interrupted by new chances at life. The new neighbors scrape the side of his house with their trailer, so he has to back it for them. The Iranian wife, Parvaneh, and the two children, find him entertaining enough to take him food, again interrupting his next planned suicide attempt. And so one.
Parvaneh takes Sonja’s place, in that she takes absolutely no guff from Ove. She grits and growls right back at him. She sees the tender heart underneath the gruffness.
Ove is capable of heroism. But he doesn’t want credit. He’s hounded by a newspaper writer who wants to report on his saving a man who has a seizure and falls on train tracks. He slams the door in her face. She finally joins what I think of as the “Ove team,” all the people he helps in some way, because that’s the way he is. He always gives Sonja the credit. Sonja would be so mad if he didn’t help his neighbor down the street whose husband suffers from Alzheimer’s, if he didn’t adopt the stray cat he finds freezing in the snow, if he weren't nice to the two little girls next door who start calling him Grandpa.
Other times, he gives his father the credit. “This is what my father would do,” he often says or thinks.
In truth, it is in Ove to do these things.
His life is illuminated in flashbacks between his suicide attempts. We learn how he meets his wife, Sonja. She is drawn to him because he is much like her own father. He is a fine specimen of physical manhood because of his hard work in construction. His bosses trust and respect him.
He has come to see himself as “just an old person with no purpose in the world” because after Sonja dies, he's asked to retire.
Ove has experienced more than his share of loss in the world: his mother when he was 7, his father when he was in his teens, his precious Sonja.
Despite the sadness, humor livens every page. The chapter titles are as quirky as Ove. His strong preferences can be ridiculous. He drives a Saab. A Volvo driver is a peg lower as a human being than a Saab driver. Japanese cars—and their owners—are sneer-worthy. And when someone considers buying a French car! Pure idiocy!
Poignant observations are thought-provoking, such as the statement pertaining to the ongoing feud between Ove and Rune, his neighbor down the street who has developed Alzheimer’s. Ove thinks, “Maybe their sorrow over children who never came should have brought the two men closer. But sorrow is unreliable in that way. When people don’t share it, there’s a good chance that it will drive them apart instead.”
How often do we read books that we completely forget? I will remember the writing style, so tailored to the main character. I will remember the story of the life of a man who could be so lost, but that he is graced by love. I will
remember the cat, Parvaneh, Sonja, Rune and Anita, and even the bitch across the street with the purse-sized dog that terrorizes the cat. I did have trouble picturing Ove, so I think I’ll get on Netflix and watch the movie, even with the subtitles, to see if I agree with the depiction.