This is one of those books that I’ve seen floating around the blogosphere for a long time. Every time I would read a review of it I would think, Would I like this book? Maybe I should read it. Sometimes I would add it to my TBR, but then I would take it back off because I just wasn’t convinced that it would be a book I would actually like. It sounded like it might be kind of sad, and we all know that I don’t really enjoy reading books that are kind of sad.
But then I decided to participate in the #AuthoraMonth challenge on Litsy, which I talked about when I reviewed Beartown, because Backman both wrote Beartown and was January’s author. And since I didn’t hate Beartown – in fact, I found it to be a rather compelling read – I decided to pick up Ove, even though multiple people told me that it was a very different kind of book.
And it was a very different kind of book, but I ended up loving it. I’m not sure I’ll exactly be able to explain why I loved it, and I also can’t explain why loving this book has not particularly made me want to read anything else Backman wrote. It’s honestly kind of weird! But overall this was a read that made me both laugh and cry, and that honestly doesn’t happen very often.
My review is going to have some mild spoilers, so if you like to go into a book knowing nothing, don’t read any further. I’m not going into every nitty-gritty detail, but it’s hard to talk about this book without talking about some of the events within it, but in fairness part of the delight of this book is watching it gently unfold in front of you. But if you want the skinny: 4.5* and my favorite new read of January (as opposed to rereads).
So Ove is a grumpy old man. And maybe part of the reason I liked this book is that I’m a grumpy old man on the inside. Ove likes to walk around his neighborhood and make sure everyone is following all the rules (many of which he helped put into place when he was on the equivalent of their homeowners’ association). He knows how to fix everything, he’s spent his entire life working hard and being responsible, and he really doesn’t understand what is wrong with young people these days.
Ove’s wife recently passed away, and now he has lost his job, so Ove has decided that it’s probably best for him to just go ahead and kill himself so that he can go to be with his wife. This sounds really abrupt when I saw it like this, but Backman does a really excellent job of luring you into this whole thing within the first few chapters. At first, he talks about Ove’s wife in a way that makes it sound like she is alive and well, but it doesn’t take long to realize that she isn’t around any more. And then you notice how Ove is carefully wrapping up loose ends in his life, because that’s the kind of methodical person that he is. He isn’t going to leave some kind of mess for other people to clean up. He’s going to carefully install a hook in the middle of the ceiling and quietly hang himself, leaving preciesly-written instructions for everything he is leaving behind.
Except he ends up with new neighbors. Loud ones. A rather goofy, clumsy man. His intelligent, warm (and very pregnant) wife. Their two young daughters. And it seems like every time Ove is finally going to get around to killing himself, they show up on his doorstep needing more help.
Obviously, a lot of the humor in this book is on the dark side. But it really is just so, so funny. Every time Ove has to give someone a ride in his car and starts spreading out newspapers for them to sit on, I couldn’t help but giggle. Ove tries so hard to stay disconnected, but is slowly drawn into the lives of his neighbors, new and old, and begins to realize that there may be things left to live for.
In the meantime, we also get flashbacks to Ove’s past life – his childhood, his early working years, meeting his wife, his marriage. There is a lot of tragedy and heartache, but Backman balances it all well with the simple joy of living. Ove’s wife is an amazing character, and I wanted to be just like her. I absolutely loved the way that Ove and Sonja cared so deeply for each other for their entire marriage – not just “in love,” but living every day serving and taking care of the other, genuinely appreciating what the other had to offer.
Sometimes, especially in the first few years, some of her girlfriends questioned the choice she had made. Sonja was very beautiful, as the people around her seemed to find it so important to keep telling her. Furthermore she loved to laugh and, whatever life threw at her, she was the sort of person who took a positive view of it. But Ove was, well, Ove was Ove. Something the people around her also kept telling Sonja.
He’d been a grumpy old man since he started elementary school, they insisted. And she could have someone so much better.
But to Sonja, Ove was never dour and awkward and sharp-edged. To her, he was the slightly disheveled pink flowers at their first dinner. He was his father’s slightly too tight-fitting brown suit across his broad, sad shoulders. He believed so strongly in things: justice and fair play and hard work and a world where right just had to be right. Not so one could get a medal or a diploma or a slap on the back for it, but just because that was how it was supposed to be. Not many men of his kind were made anymore, Sonja had understood. So she was holding onto this one. Maybe he didn’t write her poems or serenade her with songs or come home with expensive gifts. But no other boy had gone the wrong way on the train for hours every day just because he liked sitting next to her while she spoke.
I think in the end, that was what I really genuinely loved about this story. So many books that I read these days present marriage as a negative. A chore. What you do when you’re ready for all your fun in life to be over. So many novels present men as sex-obsessed, always mentally undressing every woman they see, ready to leave behind wife and family at the drop of a hat (or lift of a skirt) because what’s even the point of marriage and commitment anyway? Books present women as either obnoxious nags who constantly have to remind their husband how dumb he is and how he couldn’t do anything without her around, or as sad little doormats being used and abused by domineering husbands.
But Ove doesn’t do that. Instead, this book shows marriage as something beautiful, something to be cherished. It presents a man and a woman who loved each other deeply, who stayed together through many tragedies and difficulties, and came through the other side even stronger. And I absolutely loved that.
“Loving someone is like moving into a house,” Sonja used to say. “At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all of this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing in through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren’t actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home.”
All in all, Ove is the warmest, gentlest, most loving book I have read in a long time. Some of the heartache was hard to read – I did seriously cry when I was reading this book. But other parts were so funny, and the overall tone of the book was one of hope and kindness. I was completely satisfied with the ending, which I wasn’t sure if I would be.
This was definitely my favorite book I read in January, and I highly recommend it. Not a book of fast-moving action or thrills, but one that is a gentle reminder of how important it is to love and look out for the people around us.