Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"A Man Called Ove": Hard on the Outside, Soft on the Inside

“Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.”

We all know one curmudgeon or two in our lives.

These cantankerous individuals grumble at insignificant things that they really can't change.  Just the other day when I was at the local Jewel, I stood behind an angry older man who decided to lose his anger on the unsuspecting cashier.  He waited in line too long to buy his bottles of seltzer water and he wanted answers as to why they recently removed the self checkout aisles.  His words were condescending and rude, and he wanted very much to prove the point that he considered every employee at Jewel an idiot.

When I met the main character Ove of Swedish writer Fredrik Backman's debut novel "A Man Called Ove" I was reminded of every curmudgeon that I met while working on the farm (where they were rampant going as far as returning a quart of strawberries because they weren't juicy enough), or while I waited tables through college.  I thought of past colleagues when I was a teacher and even some family members.

Ove is the kind of man who sticks to his routine without fail.  He has black and white ideas about the types of people he likes (those who drive Saabs like he does) and those who he does not (those who are unable to back up a trailer or computer salespeople or those who drive on a on a motor vehicle prohibited street which is clearly marked or especially anyone who drives a BMW).  He walks around the neighborhood spreading more complaints than joy and everyone seems to be able to ruffle his 59 year old, cranky feathers.

But, everyone has a story to tell about how their past influenced their present day emotional status and Ove's story is one of sadness and hardship as well as love and companionship.  He grew up to be a man of principles and little compromise on his hardened belief system until he met the love of his life, Sonja, who was able to see the beautiful person that he was inside.  Their love story is full of touching moments. "People say Ove saw the world in black and white.  But she was all color.  All the color he had." Even when someone finds the perfect mate, life has a way of not turning out the way you expect it and Ove's life hardened him until his outer shell was so thick he didn't even want to go on living.

And that is where the reader meets him - when he's at the end of his rope from life's stupidity and outrage, missing Sonja's color in his life of black and white.  He would rather cease to exist than go on living.  At least that is what he believes.  When his new neighbors move in - Parvaneh (the pregnant mom), the dad (who Ove just names The Lanky One), and their two daughters - Ove's whole life begins to change.

I don't want to give away too much about this novel, because the real joy stems from the way Backman skillfully unfolds the backstory and present day story of Ove simultaneously.  At first I was irritated by Ove's unbending ways, but by the middle of the book, I couldn't wait to read more about his past and see what other circumstances would surface in the present.  Quite a few moments made me laugh out loud or smile.

And, yes.  I did shed a tear or two (maybe way more than that).  I love a good story about how even the hardest of hearts can soften (just think about how you watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol every single year), or how many people who seem like the grumpiest recluses are really the ones who have a history of good deeds and who are the most helpful in a crisis.

Redemption, friendship, love, a stray cat, an amazing cast of neighbors, a grumpy old man bent on ending it all, and the beauty of owning a Saab all combine to make "A Man Called Ove" one that might make you rethink your internal remarks about the crabby old men who yell at the cashiers in Jewel.  It will remind you for sure that everyone has a story to tell.

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