I read somewhere that Fredrik Backman’s classically heartwarming novel A Man Called Ove grew out of a curmudgeonly character he introduced in his popular blog that had readers clamoring for more. The roots of this can be seen in the structure of the book, which is told in a braid of vignettes from past and present, each of which could easily be a (well-written) blog entry.
I’m a sucker for stories of curmudgeons and the history of tragedy that is usually employed to make sense of how they got that way; I’m generally less enamored with the inevitable revelations of those same curmudgeon’s heart of gold and their secret, not-so-misanthropic life. But I’ll admit this book, despite a rough start, hooked me. It probably helped that I listened to the novel on long, solitary drives to and from the small town where I spent much of my late childhood and to which I’d only returned twice in the last 25 years, so I was prone to pondering my own curmudgeonliness and my own small dark heart.
At any rate, despite the umbrage of my internal critic about the formulae for a work that is rightly called “heartwarming,” I found myself enjoying the story of Ove more and more as I went along. The sad stories are interspersed with occasionally madcap bits that made me laugh out loud many times, something books rarely make me do. That his story is too good to be true is part of the charm: Ove is a grumpy hero at the center of a fairy tale, a fantasy of a relentlessly taciturn and honorable man who talks little while doing much. In short, Ove is in most ways the kind of man I aspire to—but have made very little progress toward—being.
As Ove’s story is told, we meet a wide range of characters ranging from a neighbor who he engages in a long, passive aggressive battle with to the homosexual son of an immigrant cafe owner…each with important parts to play in Ove’s life, despite his resistance. But we see their lives aslant. The real story is that of Ove. Ove who wants to be left alone but who in his stolid, no-nonsense approach to the world can’t help but find himself helping people. Ove who sees the world in the starkest black and white until unexpected, unexplainable and finally tragedic (isn’t it alway?) love fills his world with color. Ove who never gives in to the temptation the rest of us feel to be something we are not (or something we wish we were not). Ove is Olaf, glad and big, and I’m glad he stays that way in this charming book.