A Man Called Ove is one of those surprise hits that has spread entirely through word-of-mouth rather than by any kind of critical acclaim. It came to my attention when it was featured in one of the many year-end lists of “must-read” books that came out recently. I also found that it had very favorable reviews on Amazon—four and a half stars with as many as 10,356 reviews at the time of this writing!—which is what even many best-selling and critically acclaimed books do not get. Obviously, there had to be something to it, and once I was able to get a copy of it from the library, I could see what it was.
Set in Sweden and written by a Swedish author—in English—A Man Called Ove tells the heart-warming, even if somewhat predictable, story of an elderly man, Ove, who is a curmudgeon to the extreme and lashes out at everyone around him, but who, by the end of the book, finds some measure of peace, and even happiness, and comes to be loved dearly by those around him. Ove has always been somewhat anti-social and awkward around others, and things come to a head when his wife of 40 years—whom he loved dearly and who was pretty much his main reason for existence—dies of cancer. He has no kids because his wife got into a horrific bus crash shortly after they were married which left her paralyzed from the waist down, and while he continues to go to work after his wife’s death—because that is the kind of person that he is, a stickler for rules and doing what is right—once he gets laid off from his job, he finds no reason to go on living. So he draws up a meticulous plan to kill himself.
However, even the best-laid plans don’t always work, and Ove is thwarted every time he tries to commit suicide by being forced to come to the aid of people around him—his new neighbors, which is a family with a very pregnant mom who is from Iran, a stray cat who literally adopts herself as his, his once-upon-a-time best-friend-turned-enemy who now has Alzheimer’s and might be forced to live in a home, a gay young man disowned by his father who ends up living with him until he is accepted by his family, a random stranger he saves from the train tracks where has gone to actually get under the train himself, and a few others. Along the way, he reluctantly forges bonds with all these people, especially with the Iranian woman’s two little girls. And eventually, of course, as someone who is so needed and loved, Ove’s suicide plans are permanently put to rest. He does die after some years, but of natural causes.
As I said, the story is extremely predictable and you can tell how it will end from a mile off. Also, the writing is quite basic, with none of the literary finesse that would be needed for critics to sit up and take notice. Yet, the book has been such a hit that it is even being made into a movie. I can think of a couple of reasons for the book’s success. Most importantly, it is entirely a “feel-good” story, one that tugs at your heart-strings but which still ends happily rather than tragically. In our current anxiety-filled political climate, we appreciate these kind of heart-warming stories all the more. The fact that it is not highbrow at all means that more people can read it and enjoy it. I personally found it a good, fast read with even a bit of humor thrown in that I appreciated. (It pokes fun at the digital world we live in, with those into technology not capable of performing even basic chores and repairs.) It is not a book you can’t put down, but I did find it enjoyable enough to read it all the way up to the end.
A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Washington Square Press (US Edition)
Publication Date: 2012 in Sweden, 2013 in US
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.