‘Ove’ is thoughtful, heartwarming tale

Categories: Book Reviews

The life of a curmudgeon changes unexpectedly when new neighbors arrive

“A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman; Atria Books; July 2014; 352 pp; $25.

By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor

Published originally in Sweden, this quirky novel tells the tale of Ove, a grumpy, 59-year-old man who has recently been forced to retire. He lives in a neighborhood where he is known as the “bitter neighbor from hell.”

Ove (pronounced OH-veh) has always been a little hard to get along with, but he has become even more cantankerous since his wife Sonja died.

ove_bookcvrSonja understood Ove like no one else could. He brings flowers to Sonja’s grave every day and visits with her; he has decided that, without her, life is not worth living anymore and has made a plan to end his life and join his beloved Sonja in the next life.

Ove’s father, who died when Ove was 16, taught him staunch principles and Ove has difficulty tolerating all the people he encounters who don’t seem to live by the same standards.

A number of years ago, he had a falling-out with his only friend and neighbor, Rune, over a car-buying decision — Rune purchased a BMW; Ove believes Saabs are the only cars worth driving. Ove has a short temper and follows a strict daily routine, making a morning inspection of his street to make sure no vandalism or burglaries have taken place overnight.

He checks the guest parking area and reports any unauthorized cars. He makes sure no one drives in the residential area of his neighborhood, where motorists are prohibited. To Ove’s way of thinking “if men like Ove didn’t take the initiative there’d be anarchy.”

New neighbors

Early in the novel, as Ove is about to make his morning inspection, an unkempt cat appears in the middle of the footpath.

Ove has no time for the creature; he has always perceived cats as untrustworthy. However, soon the cat, which he dubs “the Cat Annoyance,” has moved into Ove’s house, even going so far as to sleep with him.

About the same time as the cat appears, a new family moves in next door. Ove is introduced to the family when the U-Haul carrying their belongings is unskillfully backed up and flattens Ove’s mailbox. The inept blonde man driving the U-Haul, his pregnant wife, who is Iranian, and their two young daughters soon make an impact on Ove.

Even though he is called on to help the new family in the neighborhood and some other people he encounters along the way, Ove still plans to end his life. However, his suicide plans keep getting delayed by neighborhood crises of one kind or another.

Ove, against his will, becomes involved with the people in his neighborhood — even somewhat accepting of them.

Looking back

Author Fredrik Backman weaves chapters of Ove’s earlier life with the present; the chapters describing Ove’s past help us realize the amount of sadness he has endured in his lifetime and portray him as a caring son and loving husband, but always as a serious person who lives by his principles.

Each chapter has an interesting title, such as “A Man Called Ove and Social Incompetence” and “A Man Called Ove Isn’t Running a Damned Hotel.”

“A Man Called Ove” is a tale of a sourpuss who is trying to commit suicide — hardly the theme for a delightful story. Backman’s debut novel, though, is truly an amusing and entertaining one.

Readers will find themselves chuckling at many of the scenes in the book (Backman’s depictions of the cat and its various looks are often hilarious and always interesting.) And yet, the book has great depth of character, empathy and thoughtfulness and offers numerous profound passages, mostly coming from Ove’s thoughts.

This charming, heartwarming novel is an enjoyable and satisfying read and is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University bookstores.

Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.