Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman

Of all the imaginable things he most misses about her, the thing he really wishes he could do again is hold her hand in his. She had a way of folding her index finger into his palm, hiding it inside. And he always felt that nothing in the world was impossible when she did that. Of all the things he could miss, that's what he misses most. 
The titular Ove spends the bulk of this novel trying to kill himself after the death of his beloved wife. He is thwarted at every turn by the better angels of his nature--he begrudgingly feels called to help out various neighbors and community members and repeatedly puts off the deed until he rediscovers the will to live. Ove is, on the surface, a textbook curmudgeon; his drive to help others seems to come from a conviction that no one else can do anything right, so he has to do everything himself. He is not shy in articulating this conviction and largely comes off as an asshole. But, as the book progresses, we get glimpses into the "real" Ove: his heartwarming relationship with his dead wife, his begrudging love for his neighbors' young children, and his reluctant adoption of a stray cat who follows him everywhere.

While the storyline is a little trite (Grumpy Old Man Finds Meaning of Life in Unexpected Places), the extreme extent of Ove's grumpiness and the darkness inherent in his suicide attempts do make it a little less saccharine than it would be otherwise. The flashback vignettes about his life with his wife are both charming and heartbreaking, and I softened to the premise of the book as I got further in.

My biggest sticking point here was Ove's belief, expressed throughout, that he would be meeting his wife again after his various suicides, in whatever form in which he left this earth. He worries about what clothes he's wearing each time: whether they're clean enough, whether she'll like them. Ove's entire character is built on a fierce streak of rationalism. He is a man of numbers and of logic to the exclusion of everything else, especially human emotion. I find it hard to believe that a man so deeply enmeshed in rationality would believe in an afterlife, let alone believe that he would show up in said afterlife in whatever suit he was wearing when he died. I realize that this is supposed to add a dimension to Ove's character--to show another way in which he is not the heartless man he appears to be--but this particular belief feels so far outside of the rest of his thoughts and actions that I struggled with it throughout.

The last page of my edition announced an upcoming movie (which I'm sure has already come out...), and I'm not surprised. This is exactly the kind of plot-heavy novel with a bright, clear narrative arc that makes great Hollywood fodder. I enjoyed reading it and was especially drawn to Ove's quiet, loving marriage, but I didn't learn anything new or have to think too hard. (Which, at this point in my reading career is exactly what I'm looking for in a book!)

1 comment:

Davida Chazan said...

I loved this book, and I was privileged to be one of the early readers. Backman is a genius!