Loving someone is like moving into a house . . . At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you . . . Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s old outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them . . . These are the little secrets that make it your home.
And so, we have the heart of Swedish author Frederik Backman’s international bestselling novel, A Man Called Ove, a book as dear, predictable, simple, and yet profound as this extended metaphor.
Backman—blogger, columnist, but as yet little known writer—struggled to find a willing publisher for this, his first novel. And even when it was finally published in 2013, the novel was only well-known in Sweden. The 2014 English translation had a slow start in the States; many big reviewers ignored the book. (The New York Times didn’t jump on the bandwagon until 2016.) But slowly and surely, through word of mouth and the enthusiasm of independent bookstores, A Man Called Ove ensconced itself in the hearts of readers all over the world. Backman and his publishers were shocked at the sales. With the award-winning 2016 film, it looks like the unexpected Ove phenomenon will be here to stay.
We meet our titular character at an Apple store somewhere in Sweden. Ove (pronounced OO-VA), a quintessential lonely curmudgeon berates a luckless tech guy as he tries to buy an “O-pad,” which, Ove believes, is a really good computer.
It’s the first of many sketches that begin to shed light on Ove’s character—a Swedish Scrooge of sorts, except with a more colorful vocabulary and a whole lot more backstory.
That’s not to say that Ove’s life is particularly noteworthy from a superficial glance. In fact, Ove is determined to end it all as soon as he can accomplish the thing properly and without too much mess. He was orphaned, worked hard at a few different jobs, kept meticulous financial records, taught himself home maintenance, and religiously purchased Saabs (for Ove, the ONLY car to drive). He loved and lost, like most people.
But, through Ove’s increased interactions with his neighbors (some friendly and other not-so-much) and a few flashbacks, Backman reveals both the vices in the nooks and crannies of Ove’s soul and the virtues that lie deep, but true behind his weathered and morose exterior.
Along the way, readers get acquainted with Ove’s neighborhood: the clean white, Scandinavian houses and their vastly different occupants. A pregnant foreign lady and her rambunctious family, an aging couple, an obese techy, and a flashy debutante with a rat-like dog. Over them all hovers the malicious neighborhood council, who will have a showdown with the most stubborn member of community: Ove, of course. (You can guess who wins.)
Like many a literary grouch before him, Ove’s icy winter of life thaws before his final curtain. His heart “grows three sizes,” but it’s not so much that Ove is transformed. Rather, he heals. And his virtues, always there, become known and appreciated by his neighbors, and to his neighborly readers by extension.
Here is the charm of A Man Called Ove. Backman paints quick expressions and reactions with a sure hand and a knack for comedic timing. The punchlines and reveals lead readers deeper and deeper into Ove’s story. You can always guess what is going to happen, but the slow peeling back of the layers of Ove’s life onion is so laugh-out-loud funny and deeply tragic that you don’t mind that the story has maybe been told before.
A Man Called Ove is, no doubt, hot chocolate literature—made for the masses, easy on the tongue, with no heady wordage to gnaw on. But A Man Called Ove is also a lovely call to practice “loving thy neighbor.” In a climate hungry for decency and kindness, perhaps Ove’s international popularity is not so surprising after all. As readers, we watch Ove reach out to the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow, and we learn to love Ove ourselves, perfect and imperfect though he may be.
After a trial-by-fire year as public school substitute teacher and fly-by-night freelancer, Julia will shed the tribulations of the work-world to embark on a MA in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. If you are in town, she’ll gladly take you to a local museum. She enjoys walks, leopard print, and good conversation.