A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
*Some Spoilers Within*
Oh dear, this book should come with a warning label or a box of tissues because as silly as I felt, I was crying my face off at least three times when reading it. And I am NOT a crier. Or at least I wasn’t until now. I had no choice in the matter. I fell in love with Ove and his neighbour Parvaneh and was so invested that I ended up buried deep in all the emotions the story heaps upon them.
Everyone knows someone like Ove: a grumpy, (possibly) old grouch who others assume is just mean and miserable by nature. This sour curmudgeon may be your grandpa or your aunt, a teacher or a neighbour, but they slog about in ill-temper, with a resting bitch face that could frighten a prison guard.
With a busy schedule and the fear of the unknown providing a buffer, one’s inclination is self-preservation, and accordingly, you may opt to leave them alone to their misery. What both Ove’s wife Sonja and Parvaneh teach us is that our assumptions can be disastrously wrong. I found many similarities between their two personalities and how they related to Ove.
His misunderstood and surly nature is a protective and well-honed coping mechanism, one he crafted as a lonely soul trudging through the depths of misfortune and sadness that life dragged him through.
He has lived through harsh times, in that he has suffered many familial losses, heartache, and disappointment. A man from the old school, his steadfast principles are to work hard, be honest, and do the right thing, no matter what. Well, that and driving a Saab!
The untimely death of his virtuous father, rendering him an orphan in his teens, left him holding firmly to these inherited dogmas and, consequently, vulnerable and plagued with naivety.
The old adage no good deed goes unpunished ran through my mind often as he went it alone and learned about the hard lessons of life, suffering those who would take advantage of his righteous ways.
Backman’s twisting of the past with the present gives us a clear view of the hardening that sets over Ove as trauma and tragedy mould him into the cantankerous sourpuss his neighbours know him to be.
‘He knew very well that some people thought he was nothing but a grumpy old sod without any faith in people. But, to put it bluntly, that was because people had never given him reason to see it another way.‘
As destiny would have it, another of Ove’s unfortunate setbacks was a heart condition that kept him from serving in the Military, that routine-laden world comprised of rules and purpose, where he felt he could belong.
‘Military personnel wore uniforms and followed orders. All knew what they were doing. All had a function. Things had a place. Ove felt he could actually be good as a soldier. In fact, as he went down the stairs to have his obligatory medical examination, he felt lighter in his heart than he had for many years. As if he had been given a sudden purpose. A goal. Something to be.’
The best bit of fortune he ever received and the highlight of his days was meeting his effervescent bride-to-be, Sonja, on a passenger train one fateful day.
Sonja is life and love in colour, nurturing Ove and her wayward students with smiles of confidence and hope. She sees her husband for who he really is underneath the gruffness and the black and white. The love and appreciation they share for each other are the good stuff that made me feel the painful parts more keenly.
‘And when one of her girlfriends asked why she loved him she answered that most men ran away from an inferno. But men like Ove ran into it.’
‘Ove had never been asked how he lived before he met her. But if anyone had asked him, he would have answered that he didn’t.’
With the passage of time and circumstance, Ove struggles with what remained of his life, as he lacks purpose and connection. Thanks to his job pushing him into early retirement and nothing or no one to live for, what was left?
‘And Ove didn’t know exactly when he became so quiet. He’d always been taciturn but this was something quite different. Maybe he had started talking more inside his own head. Maybe he was going insane (he did wonder sometimes). It was as if he didn’t want other people to talk to him, he was afraid that their chattering voices would drown out the memory of her voice.’
Queue Parvaneh and her cacophonous clan moving in across the way.
Between breaking condo rules, asking for help, and showing up unannounced with home-cooked meals, they shove their way into the void of Ove’s darkened heart, and not a moment too soon. He’d had enough of the struggle to carry on and had been plotting his mortal exit, but thanks to the interruptions of his overly involved neighbours, he would be halted sometimes seconds before he was successful.
The juxtaposition of the grumpy older man alongside the vivacious young mother was a pleasure to read. I could feel my spirits lifting with Ove’s as he started to connect with Parvaneh’s daughters, conspire to tease her dopey husband, and grow stronger from the purpose he again felt in his existence.
It was heartwarming to watch the new seasons of Ove’s life as he blossomed again into a neighbour that put himself out for others, caring enough to do so. His rigidity began to soften while going with the flow of the new relationships being cultivated, his story unfurling into acceptance and light.
This book was an emotional rollercoaster, completely worth the ride. Themes of friendship, purpose, and connection had me mournfully reflective of what the lack of these things means to our society during lockdowns and the isolation of this pandemic. How many Ove’s needing a Parvaneh can’t meet her because of this mess, and what can they do to persevere until things get back to normal?
Community is the key to healing from loss and loneliness. Being a part of a group provides a sense of purpose and a feeling that people care whether you live or die. Sometimes that same community is the one thing that will prevent someone from succumbing to their struggle.
Don’t give up on yourself or your neighbour; be brave, make time, keep smiling, and let the Ove in your life have a second chance.
One of the beautiful things about the internet and blogging is the ability to maintain community, even if we are isolated from others physically. The comments section is an excellent place to do that. Have you read A Man Called Ove? Did it make you ugly cry and have you running to clean your face before your family made fun of you, or maybe that was just me?😭🤭