Big-hearted: A Man Called Ove (review)

A Man Called Ove (NetGalley DRC)
by Fredrik Backman
Atria Books

Time is a curious thing. Most of us only live for the time that lies right ahead of us … 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. 

There isn’t much Ove likes–not Volvos (Ove is a Saab man) or handbag dogs or lead-footed drivers or recycling bins or rule-breakers or cell phones or espresso machines. And Ove isn’t likely to keep his opinion (or his temper) to himself. He is, in a word, the quintessential Grumpy Old Man. The only tenderness Ove admits to is for his wife Sonja–beautiful, smiling, long-suffering Sonja.

For nearly forty years Ove has made daily inspections of his neighborhood every morning at five minutes to six. Not one minute more or less. The terraced homes were still dark, the street silent, but there was the traffic sign to check, garage locks to scrutinize, rubbish bins to sort. On this particular morning he meets a stray cat–tattered tail, patchy fur, one ear–which he quickly stomps away. (Ove didn’t like cats. Sonja did, but not Ove.) And before he can get back to his one cup of coffee (no more or less) he meets new neighbors moving in across the street–pregnant mom (a foreigner!), two young daughters, and a husband who crashes Ove’s mailbox and overruns his flowerbed with the moving trailer. Perhaps because Ove is at loose ends this particular morning, he takes matters into his own hands and maneuvers the trailer into their driveway himself.

The day before, Ove was sent home from work with a jolly “slow-down-a-bit” and “take it easy”. Sent him packing was more like it. Sonja was the only one who would listen, but these days Sonja doesn’t have much to say because Sonja waits under the frozen ground for his visits, under the boulder around which Ove plants flowers weekly. So Ove, now without even the work he lost himself in, is determined to join Sonja–a deed he approaches methodically, first checking weight bearing walls, then tailpipes–careful to spread plastic sheeting or newspapers accordingly–then turning off the furnace and unplugging electrics so everything is in order when he goes.

But Parsvaneh and her family, the cat, a stray letter carrier, a journalist keep interrupting, and slowly, Ove is pulled back. By love, of course, but he doesn’t quite know it yet. While Ove fusses and fumes about the intrusions, we learn about Young Ove, who while always reticent was not always so curmudgeonly, and his love for Sonja. We learn that after Ove and Sonja’s great loss, pushing others away is just one way to keep his heart safe. Ironically, it’s Ove’s heart that finally trips him up–a heart too large, too full.

A Man Called Ove is a tender story, with the sweetness of The Misremembered Man and perhaps the poignancy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed.  

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