A version of this post originally appeared on April 22, 2023.
A Man Called Ove--written by Fredrik Backman, translated from Swedish to English by Henning Koch, and narrated by J. K. Simmons--lives up to the hype.
I hesitated to try this one. Literary fiction is a hit-or-miss genre for me, skewing toward misses. Character studies can show how clever an author is, which is great for workshopping ten pages in your undergraduate fiction class, not so great for a whole novel. I do not have the patience to hear the same chord through an entire symphony.
Most of all, I was leery of the facile type of story where a cranky old person is transformed by the power of love and saves Christmas. I have never seen a Hallmark movie but I am confident I'm not their audience.
I'm delighted to announce I was wrong. For one thing it's a birthday he saves, not Christmas.
What could have been superficial sentiment becomes weighty, thanks to a somber thread. The main character, pronounced OOH-vuh, is determined to take his own life. His wife died six months ago and he just got laid off. This is not a sentence I get to type very often, but: his suicide attempts go hysterically wrong. For a book heavy with death, mourning, loneliness, and rejection, I sure did laugh a lot.
One criticism: Backman as storyteller chose to indulge in stereotypes about fat people, where he otherwise showed sensitivity and nuance. One of the secondary characters is fat, and he's always eating, always hungry. Without this fatphobia, it would have been a perfect book.
Apart from the lazy stereotyping, I was charmed by this novel. Strong plotting, wonderful characters, emotional depth, and humor that comes not just from the ridiculous situations but from the dryness of the prose.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.