My first experience with A Man Called Ove was when I read through the first few pages in a bookstore. They were surprisingly funny and I considered buying it. Not long after, I saw a trailer for a film adaptation and from that point on I was deeply suspicious. Why? Because based on the trailer, it looked like a feel-good story.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think all books need to be dark or depressing (although the best tend to be a bit of both), but a story about a grumpy old man who learns to open his heart to others seemed so sentimental and, frankly, cliché. Based on the trailer, I thought I knew the entire plot and, even if it would make me feel good, 1) I would feel guilty because I’d feel like I was being emotionally manipulated by people in a board room who’d done market research testing to decide what was most heartwarming and 2) being mortal, I’m very careful about what I spend time reading. So I didn’t ever expect to read A Man Called Ove, let alone enjoy it.
But my wife wanted it so I bought it for her. She read it, loved it, and recommended it. So I read it and I’m extremely glad I did.
I’ve thought long and hard about why this story works when similar arcs tend to be stale or fall flat, like in a typical Hallmark movie, for example. I’ve concluded that the major difference and reason why this is such a fun book to read is that Backman clearly understands his protagonist, Ove. Ove isn’t just a caricature of an old man, someone who is clearly “wrong” in how he interacts socially and so, when he eventually becomes friendly, it seems like he’s finally living correctly. No – Ove is a decent man, full of integrity and courage, and while he certainly changes over the course of the novel, he never changes in terms of who he is fundamentally. He doesn’t compromise the inflexible principles that make him seem so stiff at first yet later constitute one of the major reasons he’s so endearing. The depth and, in a sense, greatness, of Ove, combined with Backman’s impressive plot pacing, seamless interweaving of the past and present, and the simple fact that the book is funny (which makes the bittersweet parts of the story all the more powerful), makes A Man Called Ove a pleasure to read. And even for someone like me who tends to think happiness is for life, not for literature, can admit that now and then, reading a book like Ove is rejuvenating and probably necessary.
In short, if this story was just about how Ove learned to love other people, I wouldn’t recommend it. But instead, while again, Ove does change, it’s also about how other people learn to love Ove – the reader, most of all.
So go read it. Now.
(For a review of another great book by Fredrik Backman, see my post on his novella, And Every Morning The Way Home Gets Longer And Longer.)