Fredrik Backman
Fredrik Backman

A Review of Fredrik Backman’s “A Man Called Ove”

Note: During the Christmas 2021 holidays, I’ve decided to intersperse reviews of new books with reviews of books that have been on my TBR pile for some time. This is a tactic I attempted last Christmas as well. Consider it a gift to get a review of an older book — after all, it has been told to me that books have a long shelf-life. The next review on my list is of Fredrik Backman’s New York Times Bestseller, A Man Called Ove.

“A Man Called Ove” Book Cover
“A Man Called Ove” Book Cover

Last Christmas, my mother gifted me a copy of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. It had nothing to do with the fact that I had previously read and reviewed one of Backman’s other books and would have thus thought that I would like this book as well. No, the reason why I got this book as a gift was that there was a cat on the cover of the book and, because of that, she thought that the book might be a good read. I think what my mom was trying to tell me was that she thought I read too many weird books, so she wanted to give me something that was a little more “normal.” And what’s more normal than having a cat on the cover of a book? OK, the reason might partially have been that she misses her own cat, who passed on a couple of years ago, but, in any event, I got this book, and it has taken me a year to finally have the time to read it. It turns out that a year might have been too long. It’s a pretty good book.

A Man Called Ove is simply about, well, a man called Ove. He’s a Swedish man in late middle age who is prickly and grumpy at best — but his terseness is a shell to protect him from the sorts of bad things that usually befall people in life. And some very bad things have happened to him by the start of this book. His wife of 40 odd years has recently died and he has just lost his job due to downsizing. He is contemplating ending his life because he feels he no longer has anything to live for. However, every time that he tries to die — and I hope this isn’t much of a spoiler because the book’s pleasure lies in its predictability — he gets rudely interrupted by a neighbour or someone else who wants something of him. In the end, will Ove come to see that he has an extended family of neighbours (along with a friendly feral cat that he winds up adopting) who likes him just as he is? Will his heart turn to gold, revealing that he’s not too much of an old grump at all? Well, does a bear poop in the woods?

As noted, you can see things coming from a mile off in this novel, but that’s all a part of its charm — simply because Ove is so oblivious. He’s a character that the reader can’t help but fall in love with, and Backman has made a brave choice in bringing to life a character who is, when we first met him, a tad bit unlikeable. Ove is a little OCD, as he has a strict routine that he follows, and that includes acting on the behalf of the Resident’s Association that he used to be Chairman of in checking to make sure everything is in order in the communal parking garage every morning. His demeanor is rough and gruff, but once the reader comes to understand why Ove is the way that he is, the coarseness of his character gives way a bit. This is a book that gets better and better as it goes along, because, once you get the backstory, you can come to appreciate why Ove is the way he is and why he’s willing to change in fits and starts.

Are there any faults with this novel? Well, aside from its air of predictability (even the plot twists at the end are a bit on the side of the “You can really guess what happens next” variety), the book is essentially a little bit cartoonish. Part of the problem is that damn cat — it takes on semi-human characteristics and behaviours in response to Ove’s actions, which seems to be a tad unrealistic. (Or maybe that’s because I own a very stubborn cat who has a mind of her own and does things her way, so I have a particular mindset when it comes to how cats usually behave.) However, that’s just carping. A Man Called Ove is mostly a staggeringly charming read, even in its moments where things don’t turn out as planned, and you can’t help but fall in love with a somewhat ill-tempered old man who comes to learn that, no matter how bad life gets, there still may be some things worth living for.

By now, A Man Called Ove has been a runaway success. It has been adapted as a movie in Swedish and an Americanized adaptation is in the works with Tom Hanks attached to it as the star (thought this future movie seems to be trapped in development hell). There have been more than 75,000 member reviews left on Goodreads, showing just how popular this book has become. It’s bound to be a perennial favourite that keeps on selling and selling, and Backman has since gone on to write other books that are as good and almost as popular. Backman certainly has a talent for creating memorable characters, and it’ll be hard to forget Ove when you put the book down for the final time. This is a book I probably wouldn’t have ventured out to read on my own — I like weird fiction, after all, and this doesn’t really qualify — but I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to read it. This is a colourful wonder of a novel, one that makes you care about the lives lived with it. Thanks, Mom. It took me a while to get around to it, but I’m so glad you got me this to read.

Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove was published by Atria Books on July 15, 2014.

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You may also be interested in the following review: Fredrik Backman’s Us Against You.

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Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.

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