The first time I heard of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman was when I was busily reading my way through a huge stack of books under consideration for a book club pick. A friend recommended it to me with the caveat that it might not be a great fit for book club but that she really enjoyed it. As always seems to happen when someone recommends a book (or I learn a new word), A Man Called Ove was suddenly everywhere. I heard it compared to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which I’ve read) and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (which I have not). I heard that it was slow at the beginning and that it was an exceptionally great audiobook. So when my audiobook hold came up before the print copy, I took it as a sign from the library powers that be and started listening.
I loved it. I did not find it slow at all, although I did have a hard time connecting with Ove in the beginning. Because I was the tail end of a large family and my relationship with my dad was fantastic, I have a soft spot for curmudgeonly old men. Even still, Ove was a bit hard to love. This is where the strength of the audiobook really shone for me. I was listening to the book while hanging laundry (because nothing drives me to find an audiobook quite like a broken dryer) when I realized I’d crossed over into caring very much about what happened to Ove. If I’d been reading the book before bed (which is just about the only time I can sneak more than a page these days), I might have put it down and gone to sleep instead. As it was, I ended up so invested in the story that I started finding excuses to listen: trips to the grocery store, yard work, extra loads of laundry, etc.
Even though A Man Called Ove is translated from Swedish, the writing is fantastic. Even decent translations can sometimes come across as stiff. This one did not. I love getting a small taste of a place through books (best if they are written by natives of the setting, but I’m not very picky), and I had a great time running around the house trying out names and turns of phrase that I just don’t hear in rural North Carolina. Because I was listening to the book, it was harder to keep track of passages I loved than if I’d had the words in front of me. Once I was so struck by the perfectness of the words that I actually rewound (can you rewind something without tape?) the story again and again until I could write it down: “But it’s actually wrong, all this. She married him. And now he doesn’t quite know how to carry on without the tip of her nose in the pit between his throat and his shoulder. That’s all.”
You may have noticed that I’ve said nothing about the plot of A Man Called Ove. That was intentional. Although there are no real spoilers I can think of, I went into the book knowing very little and I enjoyed it more as a result. In the most general terms, I can say that it’s a story about community, about love and loss, and about how each person has more than one story worth discovering. In fact, the more I think about it, the more the story reminds me a bit of one of my favorite scenes from Shrek:
Shrek: Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
Donkey: Oh, you both have layers. You know, not everybody likes onions. CAKE! Everybody loves cake! Cakes have layers!
Shrek: I don’t care what everyone likes. Ogres are not like cakes!
If I was reading this review, I would sagely nod my head and think, “Oh yes, this is a story about how a grumpy old man has a heart of gold underneath those layers.” Yes, it is. But then again, it’s not. It’s a story about how all of the people and stories in Ove’s life have layers too. It’s a story that slowly circles wider and wider loops around a neighborhood, revealing a bit more on each pass. It’s really quite beautifully done and I highly recommend it, especially on audio if your dryer is broken and you will be hanging your laundry for the next two weeks.