Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

An old man, a family, and a cat. That is the premise of A Man Called Ove by Swedish author Fredrik Backman.

*Please note: This blog post was written a while ago. My thoughts, opinions, and writing skills have changed since then. Any posts written before 2020 should be assumed to not fully reflect my current thoughts, opinions, and writing capabilities unless otherwise stated. If you would like clarification on my thoughts/opinions about any specific points mentioned in this post, feel free to reach out to me.*

An old man, a family, and a cat. That is the premise of A Man Called Ove by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. When I finally picked up this book, I was intrigued. I had no idea what to expect from a story about an old man, a family, and a cat. What I ended up reading was a heartwarming story of how a lonely grouch reveals his true inner kindness and finds a meaning to life.

Goodreads summary:

“A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.”

[SPOILERS Ahead]

Rating/Review:

5/5

When I first read the book’s summary, I was intrigued–not because I didn’t understand what was going to happen (neighbors warm old man’s heart), but because I didn’t understand how a full-length novel could be written about it.

But from the start, I was immediately endeared by Ove. The first scene is of him at an Apple store, trying to purchase an iPad. Ove is unable to grasp the idea of a tablet, leading to a very frustrated sales assistant. Even though Fredrik Backman clearly presents to the reader that Ove is grumpy and short-tempered, he is also able to make the old man endearing as the protagonist, which is very important to me in order to enjoy a story. 

Throughout the entire story, Ove continuously encounters “new” technologies and concepts that he doesn’t understand, which leads to hilarious situations. Ove’s aversion–and derision–to technology comes from his pride as a self-made man. At first, it seems he is just an old man who doesn’t like to change his ways, but this stems from a deeper sense of life-long self-consciousness. As the story progresses, we learn about his past of constantly feeling inferior. So we can understand why Ove becomes so defensive to things he doesn’t understand. Despite the sympathy I had for Ove, I was unable to contain myself from laughing out loud at some of the encounters that entail as a result.  

I loved the way that Backman revealed the story. He’s able to shroud both Ove’s past and Ove’s future actions in a way that prevents the reader from guessing what is going to happen until it actually does. For example, it wasn’t until I read in Chapter 6,

“He’s even washed up his coffee cup and canceled the newspaper subscription. He is ready.”

that I understood he wanted to die right now. And the reason he’d canceled the newspaper was so he could die. And that he was drilling the hook into the wall to hang himself.

Another thing Backman is great at revealing is the character development. I love how he is gradually able to incorporate the whole cast of characters that are seemingly insignificant at the beginning of the story. Of course, I knew Parvaneh and Patrick would become a part of his life, but I didn’t expect Anders or Jimmy to become involved. However, Ove actually makes a big impact in all of their lives, as they do him. What I also loved was learning how these people existed in Ove’s life before–such as Jimmy and his mother being helped out by Sonja and Anita. Backman was able to write the book in a way where the reader can see that they are entering in the middle of a story, rather than the story starting when the book starts.

One of my favorite relationships that developed in the book was that between Ove and the cat. Their very first encounter is so funny and cute, and I laughed so hard at Ove’s indignation over the cat’s demeanor.

“They stood there measuring each other up for a few moments, like two potential troublemakers in a small-town bar. Ove considered throwing one of his clogs at it. The cat looked as if it regretted not bringing its own clogs to lob back.”

Now that I think of it, all of Ove’s first meetings are so cute, and I especially loved the interactions between him and the two little girls. The three year old is so unaffected by Ove’s grouchiness, and she loves him from the start, which results in a hilariously confused Ove, whose heart slowly melts–and I loved seeing that.

Turning to a more serious topic, my heart softened so much every time Sonja was mentioned. I suspected from the beginning that she was dead, but despite expecting Backman’s reveal, my heart still broke when Ove visits her grave.

“Finally he puts his hand carefully on the big boulder and caresses it tenderly from side to side, as if touching her cheek. ‘I miss you,’ he whispers.”

It’s the first time any emotion that’s not grumpiness is shown by him, and it made me so sad to read. It’s so sweet to see how Sonja continuously melted Ove’s exterior and was able to bring him so much happiness, and the more that Backman revealed about her, the more my heart broke for Ove.

“And when she…tickled him until that sulky boy’s face opened up in a smile…it was as if something started singing inside Sonja. And they belong only to her, those moments.”

I was slowly able to understand just how much Ove missed her and why he was lonely to the point where he wanted to kill himself. She was the only person remaining he cared about, and she left too.

“He was a man of black and white. And she was color. All the color he had.”

Delving into Ove’s past made me really sad. Backman wrote his sorrows in such a real, human way. It was heartbreaking to learn how little joys Ove had experienced in his life, from losing his mother and father, then losing his house. I felt Ove’s loneliness deep in my core, but it also made me sad that his self-esteem was so low. When Ove says of the insurance scammer that,

“This was the first time anyone had ever expressed a wish to be Ove’s friend.”

I was simultaneously sad but also shocked that Ove couldn’t see that he did have people who cared about him, though few; his coworkers at the construction site who gave him tools and helped him out, his elderly neighbor. However, I can understand why Ove was lonely despite this, because he didn’t actually have anyone who really knew him–which is really sad.

“It’s a strange thing, becoming an orphan at sixteen. To lose your family long before you’ve had time to create your own to replace it. It’s a very specific sort of loneliness.”

I think the tragic part of the story is the way that every single person Ove cared about left his life. It’s not hard to see why he puts up so many walls around him, and why he’s so unwilling to let anyone else in. Even his job and his house are taken away. When Ove’s father was still alive, 

“They never had much, but they always had enough.”

Contrasting that contentedness with the bitterness Ove feels later,

“Hate. He hated those men in white shirts. He couldn’t remember having hated anyone before, but now it was like a ball of fire inside.”

you can see just how world-weary he’s become.

I thought it was really sweet how big of an impact Ove’s father had on him.

“He contented himself with remembering that on this day he’d decided to be as little unlike his father as possible.”

Ove sought so much to emulate him, whether through the Saab he drives or the wristwatch he still wears at 59.

I felt so happy for Ove when he finally met Sonja.

“Then one morning he boarded a train and saw her for the first time. That was the first time he’d laughed since his father’s death. And life was never again the same.”

I knew in the back of my mind that his wife would die, but I was glad because in the meantime he could finally be happy. From falling in love,

“Even men at train station ticket desks have been in love.”

to their first date,

“But to Sonja, Ove was never dour and awkward and sharp-edged. To her, he was the slightly disheveled pink flowers at their first dinner,”

and even dealing with her father’s death was more hopeful when they were together.

“‘You have to love me twice as much now,’ she said. And then Ove lied to her for the second–and last–time: he said that he would. Even though he knew it wasn’t possible for him to love her any more than he already did.”

And then comes the accident.

When Sonja first mentioned she wanted kids and Ove agreed, I became confused. Why is there no mention of kids in the present-day? I thought maybe they were unable to have children. Then the flashbacks showed Sonja getting pregnant, and I became more confused. Maybe their kids just lived far away? But then Backman started hinting at an accident, and I knew something was going to happen. Reading,

“Sat there in the seat as Sonja moved his hand to her belly and that was when he felt his child kicking, for the first and last time.”

splintered my heart into five million pieces. And reading about Ove’s constant devotion to her was so sweet.

“After a decade or so she realized that this was his way of showing her that he had no intention of giving up.”

They are able to stay supportive and devoted to each other. Sonja found meaning through teaching, and Ove found meaning in her.

“Every human being needs to know what she’s fighting for. That was what they said. And she fought for what was good. For the children she never had. And Ove fought for her.”

And then…she gets cancer. At this point, I felt like I was being knocked down by waves every time I stood back up. Can’t they just get a break?!

Reading how much Ove missed her stabbed me in the heart. Lines like,

“You miss the strangest things when you lose someone. Little things. Smiles. The way she turned over in her sleep. Even repainting a room for her.”

and,

“Of all the imaginable things he most misses about her, the thing he really wishes he could do again is hold her hand in his. She had a way of folding her index finger in his palm, hiding it inside. And he always felt that nothing in the world was impossible when she did that. Of all the things he could miss, that’s what he misses most.”

and,

“And then they both stand there, the fifty-nine-year-old and the teenager, a few years apart, kicking at the snow. As if they were kicking a memory back and forth, a memory of a woman who insisted on seeing more potential in certain men than they saw in themselves.”

and,

“And now he doesn’t quite know how to carry on without the tip of her nose in the pit between his throat and shoulder. That’s all.”

shattered me. Backman is able to capture the grief of losing and missing someone so completely perfectly. The way he writes puts inexpressible emotions into words, one reason I rated this book so highly.

Parvaneh, though. I don’t think you understand how much I love her. I just love the idea of this short, compassionate Iranian woman who is strong as heck and doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s super friendly but not in a way that annoyed me at all, but rather in a way that made me love her. She was able to get Ove out of his loneliness and force him into situations that were good for him. She’s the one who’s first able to worm her way into his life and, eventually, into his heart. Through her, the whole neighborhood becomes a part of Ove’s life. It warmed me up to see how much Parvaneh grew onto Ove, too. He expresses his affection for her in teaching her how to drive, and giving her the beautiful crib he made for his own child. I really liked how Backman wrote these scenes in a way that wasn’t out of character for Ove.

From the first time the three year old demands that Ove reads to her,

“The three-year-old sighs impatiently and disappears from sight, her head reappearing seconds later under his arm with her hands leaning against his knee for support and her nose pressed against the colorful pictures in the book.”

to Ove tucking her into bed,

“Ove found it very difficult to reason with the little troll, because she didn’t seem to understand normal argumentation, so he followed her with dissatisfaction through the front all towards her room and sat on her bedside…When the three-year-old fell asleep with her head partly on his arm and partly on the open book, Ove had put both her and the cat in the bed and turned out the light.”

I was dying from cuteness overload. It’s just so heartwarming and funny to see a little kid find her way into an old man’s heart. I started bawling when the little girl called him “Granddad” for the first time, and when Ove hung up their “To Granddad” drawing on his fridge. My heart filled with fuzzies to see that Ove was opening himself to more love. When it’s revealed the true reason why he was buying the iPad from the beginning of the novel, it made me go “aww.” You can see how much more vulnerable he’s willing to be and how much he’s developed as a character when he gives it to the seven year old and says, 

“‘That’s how I felt every time I bought a new car,’ he says in a low voice. She looks around to make sure no one can see; then she smiles and gives him a hug. ‘Thanks, Granddad,’ she whispers and runs into her room.”

One of my favorite storylines was Rune and Anita. At first, it seems Ove just doesn’t like Rune because he staged a “coup d’etat” in the Residents’ Association. But Backman reveals that the two couples used to be best friends. I really liked how Backman gave a reason for everything, and reading the story behind the cars was heartbreaking.

“But when they moved onto the street, Ove drove a Saab 96 and Rune a Volvo 244. After the accident Ove bought a Saab 95 so he’d have space for Sonja’s wheelchair. That same year Rune bought a Volvo 245 to have space for a stroller. Three years later Sonja got a more modern wheelchair and Ove bought a hatchback, a Saab 900. Rune bought a Volvo 265 because Anita had started talking about having another child. Then Ove bought two more Saab 900s and after that his first Saab 9000. Rune bought a Volvo 265 and eventually a Volvo 745 station wagon. But no more children came. One evening Sonja came home and told Ove that Anita had been to the doctor. And a week later a Volvo 740 stood parked in Rune’s garage. The sedan model…Maybe Ove never forgave Rune for having a son who he could not even get along with. Maybe Rune never forgave Ove for not being able to forgive him for it. Maybe neither of them forgave themselves for not being able to give the women they loved more than anything what they wanted more than anything. Rune and Anita’s lad grew up and cleared out of the home as soon as he got the chance. And Rune went and bought a sporty BMW, one of those cars that only has space for two people and a handbag. Because now it was only him and Anita, as he told Sonja when they met in the parking area. ‘And one can’t drive a Volvo all of one’s life,’ he said with an attempt at a halfhearted smile. She could hear that he was trying to swallow his tears. And that was the moment when Ove realized that a part of Rune had given up forever. And for that maybe neither Ove nor Rune forgave him.”

At first Ove didn’t want to help Rune from being taken away, because he was tired of losing people and he thought the situation was hopeless. But then Ove realizes what I think is the most important lesson of the book. 

“We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens and then we stand there holding on to words like ‘if.'”

Ove likes to think that he isn’t aging. He doesn’t want to retire, and he doesn’t want to accept the fact that Anita and Rune are getting old, either. But he learns that he can’t think like that, because living in denial means losing time to spend with those who will be gone. The subplots, such as Mirsad’s sexuality and Ove saving someone’s life, expresses this too. Mirsad and his father realized they need to spend their time together with acceptance and love. The man who was saved by Ove was grateful because he wanted to have more time with his children and wife.

The theme of this book is aging, which is a very melancholy subject. Eventually, everyone has to pass away but, as the book says, we can never be ready for it. The only thing you can do is to say the things you want to say to the people you love, before it’s too late. 

“Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for living…We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.”

I really think Backman was able to deliver his message in this book. A lot of the things he says about grief are ones I find very true. I think about how this applies to my grandfather, who passed away from cancer a year ago, and my grandmother who was widowed by him. Old people seem so fragile, and yet they’ve lived more life than any of us every have. They’ve experienced so many more emotions and so many more years of emotions. It’s strange to consider the different stages of life people are in, but for old people they’ve been in every stage of life. Reading this book has made me understand better the thoughts that may be common across many of the elderly, and gives me perhaps some more insight on my grandma and to be more tender with her despite the generational distance.

“And time is a curious thing. Most of us only live for the time that lies right ahead of us. A few days, weeks, years. One of the most painful moments in a person’s life probably comes with the insight that an age has been reached when there is more to look back on than ahead. And when time no longer lies ahead of one, other things have to be lived for. Memories, perhaps. Afternoons in the sun with someone’s hand clutched in ones own. The fragrance of flower beds in fresh bloom. Sundays in a café. Grandchildren, perhaps. One finds a way of living for the sake of someone else’s future.”

Ove tells Sonja,

“‘You’ll just have to wait a bit longer for me up there. I don’t have time to die right now.'”

I cried reading that line because finally, Ove had found a new meaning in life. Finally, he was getting a happy ending. There was no catch to this happiness, no tragedy to come out of nowhere and take it away again.

This book is about an old man, a family, and a cat, yes. It’s about bicycles and IKEA furniture and a U-Haul Trailer. It’s about an iPad and a hook and railroad tracks.

But truly, if you asked me what this book was about, I would say, this is a book about a man whose heart was too big.

Merry Readings,

April

Author: april | lostinthebookstacks

hello! i'm april (she/her), an asian american reader who’s passionate about words and scallion pancakes.

One thought on “Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman”

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