Book Review | A Man Called Ove

I feel like I missed something.

Something being why everyone adores this book so much.

Apologies in advance to those who loved this book! I mean you and the author no ill will! That said, I have to get this off my chest.

In A Man Called Ove (written by Fredrik Backman and translated into English by Henning Koch), Ove is a grumpy man who lives alone. But his quiet, solitary existence is disturbed when a family of four moves in next door. Over time, Ove finds himself in more and more social situations, but perhaps that isn’t so bad after all.

Okay, listen, I really really wanted to love this book. I had heard it was really funny and sweet, and a great light read. I went into it prepared to fall head over heels, because it sounded delightful, but unfortunately that isn’t what happened.

First of all, I didn’t love Ove. I know you aren’t supposed to at the beginning, that the point is to witness his character development, but I had trouble liking Ove even as he improved (probably because of the other problems I had with this book, but more on those later). He is just so judgemental and unkind to everyone, in a rather problematic way a lot of the time. He makes unkind remarks about essentially everyone—non-white people, fat people, gay people, young people, old people, women, and so on. Sure, his comments are not malicious, and he has no ill intent toward anyone, but it’s still unpleasant to be in his head all the time (and it’s not like it’s really possible to be benignly racist or misogynistic, when you think about it. Expressing these attitudes is always harmful to varying extents). And yes, it was nice to see the character development he went through, especially in his interactions with Parvaneh, but I wanted to see more of his good side than I got.

Speaking of Parvaneh and wanting to see more, I so wish she and her family were in it more. Yes, they were in it a lot, but for me they were the best part of the story, and I wish we had learned more about them and their experiences, their dreams. But since this book is so Ove-focused (obviously, considering the title tells you that), we miss a lot of what they go through. Which is a shame, because I really liked them, especially the daughters.

Okay, characters aside, I have to move on to my main complaint. I feel like this book’s description and blurbs pulled a major bait-and-switch with me. They made me think this was going to be a sweet, fluffy story, and so I had no idea what some of the actual content was. Because—and be aware if this is a topic that affects you strongly—there is a lot of discussion of suicide in this novel. Like, a lot. There’s suicidal ideation, even a couple suicide attempts. I had no idea any of this was in this book, and I wish some of that had been mentioned in the description. Not so much that anything is spoiled, just so that readers who would prefer to avoid overt depiction of this can be made aware.

Furthermore, I didn’t like how this content was presented within the story. For me, the story doesn’t treat its own subject matter seriously enough. Suicide and depression are serious things, and should be approached and portrayed with sensitivity and care. But here, something just didn’t sit right with me. None of the characters who seemed aware of what was going on seemed to be as concerned as they should have been, which felt unrealistic. And overall, the tone of the book seemed incongruously lighthearted. I don’t want to say it’s flippant about suicide; that isn’t quite the right word, but I don’t think it’s entirely the wrong word, either.

Anyway. Call me overly sensitive, I don’t care.

In the end, I am so sad I didn’t like A Man Called Ove as much as so many people do. I enjoyed some elements of it, like Ove’s interactions with Parvaneh, the children, and the stray cat. Ove’s transition from asocial misanthrope to grumpy but grudgingly fond pseudo-grandfather was sweet, I’ll admit. I also enjoyed the scenes set in the past, when Ove’s wife Sonja was alive, but I also think I could have watched the beginning of Pixar’s Up and experienced a similar story.

I also see why Under the Whispering Door has been compared to this book, but that novel is sensitive to some of the more serious/troubling content it deals with—plus I had fun with that book. Overall, I see what Backman was going for, but he didn’t hit home for me. But as always, this is just my experience with it, and if you have had a better time with this book, that’s wonderful! For my part, I am glad to have read this, but more glad to be moving on.

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