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Patrick's Book Club: A Man Called Ove
This post is the first in what I hope will be a series of book reviews. Instead of just giving my personal review, I’ll also be evaluating how good a book would be for a traditional book club. I would love your comments.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
To answer everyone’s first question, it’s pronounced oo-vuh. It's not love without the "l" or Oh-vey. For an English reader, that's probably the most difficult part of the book, because once you see the name you immediately put an incorrect pronunciation in your head.
A Man Called Ove Review
A Man Called Ove focuses, on, unsurprisingly, a man named Ove. Ove is fifty-nine years old, lives in Sweden, and is an unrepentant curmudgeon. His wife of many years has recently passed away, and he decides it's time he joins her in the afterlife. Unfortunately (or fortunately), a series of misadventures befall him and derails him from his attempts at ending his own life. Yes, this is a comedy. No, it is not a dark comedy. Despite the somewhat morbid beginning, A Man Called Ove is an optimistic tale about community, family, and loss. The book has become a smash hit, selling over two million copies according to my paperback copy. It's even been made into two movies - see the videos below to watch the trailer for the original Swedish film and the upcoming American version (titled A Man Called Otto).
My one concern about the novel was that Ove would be “Naïve Job” (biblical Job, not a job you work at) a character archetype that has been popping up in recent works. By Naïve Job, I mean a male character that has a series of increasingly melodramatic bad things befall him, like Job from the bible, but never once doubts that everyone around him is acting in good faith. Think of Charlie in Marriage Story, who apparently has no idea how divorces work, or Denny in The Art of Racing in the Rain, who has never had a negative thought about his in-laws. Without giving too much away, Ove has had a rough life. It starts to get Job-ish, but manages to just stay onsides of the “ok, this is too many bad things to happen to the same person” line. More importantly, with one exception Ove navigates his life crisis in a relatively sensible manner. He learns quickly that there are bad actors in the world, and doesn’t wander through life totally naïve to the world around him.
This book works for several reasons. First, it is funny. Comedy is difficult to do in any medium, but Backman excels at making funny situations read well. Second, it is sad. Despite his crankiness and rudeness to all those around him, the reader still feels bad for Ove, who is most likely slightly autistic and has yet to adapt to his new-found widowhood. Third, the transitions are seamless. Backman reels the reader in, alternating between jokes and sorrow in an impressive fashion that leaves you immensely satisfied. The result is a litany of reviews that refer to book as “charming”, “bittersweet”, and “heartwarming”.
One of the best aspects of the book, however, is that it knows what it is. This book is not trying to be the next great novel or winner of the Nobel prize. It’s a very well-crafted story that never takes itself too seriously, yet says a lot about the human condition. This book fills a much needed niche of a middle-brow book – a story that is sneakily well written, with excellent pacing and a parade of deliberately one-dimensional characters. Backman uses several narrative techniques, particularly with the stray cat that becomes a focus on the novel, to show the reader that this isn’t a book that needs to be thought of on a deep level. Instead, it really does succeed at being a charming, bittersweet, and even heartwarming story of a man more complicated that one would think at a first glance.
A Man Called Ove Book Club Review
A Man Called Ove made for a good book club book. There are enough sub-plots and characters to talk about for some time. It was also fun to talk about the emotional attachment most readers have to the characters. When asked, almost every person said that they both laughed and cried when reading the book. It’s easy to talk about what event you found the funniest and what event you found the saddest. At least in the later printings of the book, there are discussion questions listed at the back of the book. These, as usual, are of varying quality, but there are a few good ones in there.
Additionally, it was fun to discuss individuals in people’s lives that remind them of Ove. It seems like everyone knows a person like Ove. Someone who constantly complains and moans but has a heart underneath that only the select get to see. Hearing different people talk about their neighbor or uncle in similar terms to Ove was interesting. I personally don’t know an Ove, so I didn’t have that personal connection, but I was the exception to the rule.
That said, the downside to reading a book that is very pleasurable but predictable did limit discussion a bit. The one-dimensionality of the characters meant there wasn’t a lot to say about them. You could talk about the family across the street and how they interact with Ove, but it isn’t possible to do a in-depth character discussion. Same with the plot; because it was predictable, there wasn’t an opportunity to have the sort of, “why didn’t the character do this?” type of discussion. Ultimately, our A Man Called Ove discussion was like the book; fun and light, not too insightful or deep. It was fun to repeat some of our favorite moments, but there weren’t a lot of actions to parse or interpretations to discuss. Below the spoiler alert are suggested book club questions that provoked discussion in our group.
Book Grade: A-
Book Club Grade: B
Book Club Questions/Discussion Points
(HERE BE SPOILERS!)
Who do you know that is like Ove? Do you think that person is similarly misunderstood?
Why is it that grumpy characters are usually male? What would a female version of Ove look like?
How does the one-dimensionality of most of the characters work to further make Ove more likeable?
Does Ove die naturally at the end of the book, or does he kill himself?
Would Rune have been better off in an assisted living facility?
Ove continually complains about “men in white shirts” that always follow the rules and make his life worse. Yet Ove is also a total rule follower and hates when people break the rules he cares about. Is Ove just projecting when he gets frustrated about others who follows rules he doesn’t care about?
At one point Ove almost sets up a trap that will electrocute the neighbors dog (or possibly someone else). The neighbors get rid of one “man in a white shirt” by hacking into his personal email and threatening to release incriminating material. Is this going too far?