I wanted to love this book after I read the description on the back. A curmudgeon and a cat? What’s not to love.
And then I received my copy in the mail and my first thought was, “How is a book about a curmudgeon and a cat over 300 pages long?!”
And as it turns out, I feel justified in both responses. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is the story of newly widowed Ove’s attempts to commit suicide. And the uncanny knack of all his neighbors, particularly the new family across the street, to interrupt his best-laid plans. Each chapter of the book is titled with a new layer of Ove to consider: A Man Called Ove Does Not Pay a Three-Kronor Surcharge, A Man Called Ove Isn’t Running a Damned Hotel, A Man Who Was Ove and A Bus That Never Got There, and A Man Called Ove and Social Incompetence, etc. Each chapter reveals a man bonded to his principles, grieving the only woman he ever loved, and confounded by the shifting dynamics of his neighborhood. Underneath it chronicles a curmudgeon’s journey from loneliness to community.
At one point Ove punches a clown, considers electrocuting the pee stream of a dog that is allowed to urinate everywhere, and faces down two burly truck drivers who are harassing his neighbor’s efforts to learn to drive a car. He also saves a man who fell on the railway tracks, gets fired for stealing rather than tattle on the person who did the stealing (and who everyone knows did it), and rides forty minutes two ways just to listen to the woman he would one day marry.
But reading the book came in spurts. There was never a sense of “need to know what happens next.” So I didn’t worry about it or dwell on it throughout the day. I picked it up when I could, enjoyed the storytelling, laughed a bit, teared up at the end, and went on my way. The tension never pressured me to read more. There were also moments where situations were a bit too unrealistic – where the pregnant new neighbor, a fantastic character in her own right, leaves her small children at home alone a couple times or unaccounted for and where the same neighbor says she’s a realtor but doesn’t have a driver’s license. In both these I could suspend judgement until knowing further how the Swedish childcare and realty systems work, nevertheless there were whispers of incongruity.
Some books are best enjoyed at a leisurely, unfocused pace. My brain didn’t need to be rammed up for following the storyline, looking for themes, or considering a new angle. The story was fine. The storytelling was humorous. The writing abused similies but was otherwise unaffected. It wasn’t a bad experience, it just didn’t prompt me towards anything else. I was glad I read it. Even more glad to have the opportunity to join a book club and discuss it (which provided better insights and observations but still did not change my opinion). My opinion wavers in the dispassionate middle zone. A good read and the best modern fictional curmudgeon I’ve met, but don’t rush. You can take your time with it. For some that is a good thing. (For me it was probably necessary to take a breather.) For others it will exasperate you and not quite pull you through 300+ pages.