The first line of Fredrik Backman’s surprising breakout novel, “A Man Called Ove,” seems at first blush quite unremarkable: “Ove is fifty-nine.” The second line is equally dull: “He drives a Saab.” As this unique and quirky story unfolds, the reader discovers these seemingly pedestrian lines are packed with meaning.
Fifty-nine is not old in today’s world. For many, it is the beginning of a phase of life when they can leave their job behind and enjoy life, checking off things on their bucket list. For Ove, fifty-nine is the end of the line. That becomes clear early on. His wife has died, he has lost his job, and life has no meaning. And so he plots his suicide. But every time he tries, something happens. He is interrupted by a neighbor during one attempt. He wants to throw himself on the train tracks, but ends up saving a man who has fallen onto the tracks instead.
Ove is a disagreeable sort, a petty tyrant who walks around enforcing silly rules he has imposed upon his condo association neighbors. Then he has an epiphany, thanks to his neighbor, a young pregnant woman named Parvaneh. Ove meets Parvaneh, her earnest but clumsy husband, Patrick, and their two daughters when they accidentally knock over his mailbox while backing up a U-Haul. Ove wants nothing to do with Parvaneh, but she sees something in him. She recognizes he needs to be useful to other people and she relies on him for rides, since she doesn’t drive. Then she prevails upon Ove to teach her how to drive, a hilarious section of the novel.
Backman skillfully interjects Ove’s back story through flashback chapters that give us insight into his character. One of the most tender is the story of how he met Sonja, his wife. He spotted her on a train one day and then he invented an excuse to ride the train in the morning to the city where she worked, return on the train with her in the late afternoon and then go to his night job. When Sonja is paralyzed in a bus accident and they lose their unborn child, Ove takes care of her for many years, retrofitting the kitchen counters so she can reach them from her wheelchair and carrying her up the stairs each night. This is far from the rigid, authoritarian Ove we meet in the early chapters.
Two key turning points convince Ove that life is worth living. He takes in a stray cat whom he had scolded for urinating in his plants. The cat becomes his constant companion. Then, he finds out that a neighbor with whom he has feuded for years, Rune, is about to be institutionalized for dementia. He organizes his neighbors to come up with a plan to keep Rune in his home with his devoted wife, Anita. This was the most touching chapter in the book.
In Ove, Backman has created a unique character with a strong voice. Ove values self-reliance and hectors people who can’t do things for themselves. Yet, he discovers the world works because people are interdependent. He decides he wants to live because his neighbors need him. What a valuable message.