Britt-Marie Was Here–Fredrik Backman

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I fell in love with Backman’s prose and worldview in A Man Called Ove.  I love his new book, Britt-Marie Was Here, but not quite as much. Britt-Marie, like Ove, is a complex character whose inside is much bigger than her outside, and I struggled to decide why I loved her a little less.  I decided that, while Backman had created a complex character, he had not fully convinced me of Britt-Marie as a woman.  Upon reflection, my reticence was really the clue that Britt-Marie was anysexual with a woman’s name and biography, and, given the particular elements of Backman’s plot, that troubled the work from start to finish.  All of that aside, I will still recommend this book, but, if a friend were to only read one of Backman’s novels, I would insist it must be Ove and not Britt-Marie.

Britt-Marie is troubled.  She has recently left her cheating husband.  Her sister died tragically when they were young, after which her father left and her mother sank into depression.  Britt-Marie is of the generation of women who married with the expectation that their job was to care for their husbands and households and to foster their husbands’ careers and in return their husbands would care for them financially and give them the respect due a wife.  Britt-Marie’s husband forgot his end of the deal.  She cared for the children of his first marriage, then his business clients and him to be rewarded with a resume that could not land her a job in anything but sitting for a closed recreation center in a town left behind by the financial crisis.

At first I wondered if Britt-Marie were on the autism spectrum. She is obsessed with cleaning, and with a particular brand of cleaner.  She is brutally honest in defiance of all social convention.  She is socially awkward and obstinate.

As she settles into the town and becomes slowly entangled in the lives of some of its residents, Britt-Marie loses the edge of her social awkwardness.  She tempers her brutal honesty and she makes friends with a rat.

I listened to the audiobook of Ove and I wonder how Britt-Marie would have unfolded in the voice of a narrator outside my head.  I was, actually, nervous reading this work and feared that Backman’s prose would not hold up to the high standard established by the narrator of Ove.  I was wrong–Backman’s prose is lovely no matter the medium.  And that is why, even if Britt-Marie may be a cross-dressing character, she is worth the read.

Finished 4/25/16

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced eGalley

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Three by Swedes: A Man Called Ove,The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, and The Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Fredrik Backman and Jonas Jonasson) (Audible)

Most of us hear “novel by a Swede” and think of the girl who kicked the hornet’s nest.  That is not a bad place to start.  Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating character.  From this small sample, character-driven novels seem popular with Swedes–and I love it.

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Ove is a curmudgeon supreme and self-appointed watchman of his neighborhood.  We meet Ove in a state of high dudgeon when a new neighbor, Patrick, backs a trailer into his house, which is forbidden since vehicles are not allowed in the residential area.  Patrick’s wife, heavily-pregnant Parvana, scolds him and Ove eventually rescues them from their ineptitude.  Ove seems very hard to like until chapters about his past begin alternating with chapters of the present.  Ove’s mother died when he was very young and then his father died when he was a teenager.  Life has not been kind to Ove.  He makes the right choices, but is rarely rewarded until he meets Sonya.  We discover that she has recently died and then see Ove trying various plots to join her.  Each plot is interrupted by Parvana and various neighbors and slowly Ove is pulled back into life.  This novel was slow and delicious–like quality dark chocolate with a dry red wine.  Be prepared for tears.

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The Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared and The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden both feature memorable characters.  Allan Karlson climbs out of the window of his retirement home room just before his hundredth birthday party.  At the bus station, he agrees to watch a suitcase for a young man who needs to visit the lavatory and events lead to him riding the bus with the suitcase and without the young man.  When he discovers the suitcase is full of cash events really accelerate.  With Allan assembles a diverse cast of supporting characters with whom he shares adventures and equal shares of the loot and, as with Ove, chapters from the present alternate with scenes from the past and we discover that this likable old man has met life with a carefree attitude from the beginning–and that carefree attitude has taken him across the world and allowed him to meet amazing historical figures and to influence key world events, such as the creation of the atom bomb.  Allan encourages us to consider what life would be like, what would be possible, if only we were able to enjoy the moment and leave our egos behind.

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The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is Nombeko Mayeki, who was born in the slums of Soweto, became a latrine cleaner to support her drug-addicted mother, and became imprisoned by a worthless engineer when he runs her over on the sidewalk and the South African court system forces her to pay him back for the damages to his car through forced labor that continues beyond the court-appointed term.  Nombeko is street-smart and, thanks to the engineer’s library, becomes book smart.  She becomes the brains behind his achievements and, like Allan Karlson, becomes involved in the world of atomic weapons.  In fact, when she finally flees the engineer’s prison with the help of some fellow prisoners, she accidentally ends up with an atomic bomb in her luggage, of which she spends the next several years trying to rid herself while living in Sweden in a condemned warehouse with a man who does not exist according to the government.  She, like Allan Karlson, meets interesting figures along her way who come together in the end to help her save the king and find her own freedom.

Despite there being bombs in two of these novels, these plots do not rely on explosions, murders, adultery, or anything Americans usually conceive of as sexy.  These novels revolve around fascinating and richly drawn characters and the many relationships they develop with those they encounter.  Such stories are a good reminder of the importance of characters and relationships in the era of text messages and tweets.

Finished 11 and 12/15