Ann Sandefer, Philanthropy & Volunteer Associate, recommends A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.
A Man Called Ove is a book about routines and the unexpected, happiness and sorrow, love and loss, youth and aging, life and death.
The book begins with a very grumpy, 59-year-old man with principles as deep as his daily routines who’s been having a rough time. Ove had always seen the world as black-and-white with his now deceased wife providing the only color for him. He’s mourning the loss of his wife and has recently found himself forced into early retirement. Lacking any purpose or direction in his life, he plans to die by suicide. The day of his first well-planned attempt to leave this world is interrupted by a young family moving in next door who flatten his mailbox with their U-Haul.
As Ove’s relationship with his wacky neighbors develops, his backstory unfolds, which is heart wrenching and yet endearing. His life is turned upside down with the new neighbors. The book becomes a heartwarming story of down-on-its-luck cats, unlikely friendships, societal misfits, and a neighborhood and community that finds itself reevaluating the person they thought for sure they had figured out.
The new neighbor, Parvaneh, sets out to give Ove the purpose he’s lacking, asking him to help with small tasks: teaching her to drive, watching over her two young daughters, and taking in a stray cats.
Eventually Ove “picks his battles” by convincing a father the importance of standing by his son and fighting an attempt by the government to remove his long-forgotten friend and neighbor, Rune, to an unwanted facility as his Alzheimer’s has deteriorated. Ove ends up successfully rallying the entire community around his cause. In the process, Ove forms emotional bonds with his neighbors, discovering a new sense of belonging for the first time since his wife died.
As it turns out, Ove has a “too large heart” which is rather ironic given his lifelong inability to show affection for others, except his wife. By the end of the story, Ove has evolved from a lonely, angry man intent on suicide to being a central part of a close-knit community around him. Four years after the death of his wife, he dies in his sleep, leaving everything to his neighbors. At his funeral over 300 people celebrate the grumpy old man who once had no friends.
I loved this book as it tells the story of so many people in society that project an outside personality which may not reflect what’s going on inside. This is a rich story that slowly develops, peeling back the layers of a man’s life in an empathetic way, tackling sorrow, aging, and depression while revealing the reasons behind the grumpy exterior.
One never knows what is going on inside another, you can never judge a book by it’s cover nor a person by first impressions. The book also heavily tackles “right” and “wrong” in society and interpersonal relationships and human dignity and decency. The book will make you laugh as well as cry and tell a profound story of one man’s life and death that is very relatable and relevant.
The film, A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks, is basked on this book. Find the DVD here.