Book Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Rating: ★★★★★

Goodreads Synopsis:

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.”

I typically read books featuring the lives of adolescents. They tend to be more action-based, more relatable, and consequently, more impactful.

This book did not feature the lives of adolescents. It was technically action-based—as all books need to be to some extent—but the action was very watered-down, and similarly, it was somewhat relatable, but not in the way YA novels are.

And yet, as irony would have it, this book was remarkably impactful.

As the title suggests, this book follows the story of a 59-year-old man Ove. Admittedly, I initially found the matter-of-fact tone of the book rather dull. Also, the scenes felt a bit random and almost too mundane to amount to an interesting story. The plot was too subtle and the tone was not subtle enough.

Of course, my first impressions and reservations were wrong, and the book in its full mundanity was what ultimately made it so touching and thoughtful. I doubt this review will do the charm of this book justice, but here goes.

So first, the structure. The narration was never chronological and switched between the present and the past quite often. These flashbacks were sporadic, occurring both amongst and within different chapters, and each time, they revealed only small pieces of Ove’s history. While they seemed purposeless at times, each memory did eventually prove to serve a unified purpose, and what I really appreciated was that because these jumps between the past and present were never consistent, the story resembled the messy, erratic way in which we reflect back on our memories.

The storytelling, too, was really interesting. While the book did primarily just state Ove’s actions, it also stated his thoughts, and in doing so, there were many paragraphs simply describing the characters’ values and philosophies. This made the book a lot more pensive, which in turn made the most direct and factual aspects of the story strangely thought-provoking as well.

Also, the matter-of-fact tone occasionally added a bit of humor and lightheartedness to the story as the “frank” narration revealed the author’s fondness and protectiveness for Ove, in spite of the latter’s questionable actions. For example:

“Ove answers with something that might either be a “yeah, yeah” or a fierce exhalation of air through the nostrils. Difficult to judge.”

Backman, A Man Called Ove

This use of “either-or” in describing Ove’s reactions appeared consistently and it just made the story and its characters more warm and lovable in that even the author was, at times, a bit sheepish about Ove’s personality. 

And of course, the mundane plot. The mundane plot, though initially confusing, proved to be beautiful in the way it was so real and subtle. From Ove’s principles as a child to his various decisions as he aged, the book remained perfectly honest, describing what he chose to do and why, and admitting to his flaws when applicable. It didn’t impose unnecessary, heroic flourishes onto its characters; rather, it sought to present them as truthfully as they could be portrayed. This honesty sometimes meant that the characters’ choices didn’t make sense. Because that’s reality, isn’t it? We all make spontaneous decisions for those we love.

The aspect I admired most about the book was its mystery. This was the foundation of the book and was reflected in instances such as the feud between Ove and his neighbor Rune. This was one of the earlier explanations given in an attempt to justify their clashes:

“Why had two men who had once been friends suddenly started hating one another with such overpowering intensity?

It was simply about how when the two men and their wives moved into their houses, Ove drove a Saab 96 and Rune a Volvo 244. A year or so later Ove bought a Saab 95 and Rune bought a Volvo 245. Three years later Ove bought a Saab 900 and Rune bought a Volvo 265. In the decades that followed, Ove bought another two Saab 900s and then a Saab 9000. Rune bought another Volvo 265 and then a Volvo 745, but a few years later he went back to a sedan model and acquired a Volvo 740. Whereupon Ove bought yet one more Saab 9000 and Rune eventually went over to a Volvo 760, after which Ove got himself a Saab 9000i and Rune part-exchanged to a Volvo 760 Turbo.

And then the day came when Ove went to the car dealer to look at the recently launched Saab 9-3, and when he came home in the evening, Rune had bought a BMW.”

Backman, A Man Called Ove

It’s confusing. It doesn’t make sense. One might even feel frustrated that Ove founds his grudge on a reason as shallow as cars. The book just offers this incomprehensible explanation and expects you to take it or leave it. However, with this, the readers end up becoming the characters in the book that judge Ove. We find ourselves experiencing first-hand the theme that you can’t judge someone without knowing their full story.

Such mystery also highlights the importance of understanding that no one is entitled to another individual’s “full story.” Eventually, the tragedy behind this feud is revealed to us. However, it’s only revealed after we’ve committed ourselves to this story. We’re only allowed a full justification of Ove’s persona after we’ve dedicated a sufficient amount of time attempting to understand the characters.

Truthfully, as the book was coming to a close, it seemed a little too optimistic and rushed, but since one of the main purposes of a fictional story is to be unrealistic, I don’t think much can be said about that. Plus, it was an epilogue, so it makes sense that it was very summary-like. Also, it tied up all of the loose ends and personally, closure matters a bit more to me than an extended ending.

And as for the ending, well, it was as close to perfect an ending can be. 🙂

All-in-all, this book was many things, but most accurately, it was a paradoxical flurry. It was cohesive in its messiness, sweet in its sorrow, hopeful in its despondency. I would highly recommend it.


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