My mom had listened to this audiobook, even though she had never read A Man Called Ove or My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry. Having read and adored both those books, with my mom’s recommendation of the audiobook, combined with my serious lack of reading time lately, I decided to go ahead and request this audiobook from my local library.
I adored it every bit as much as I enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s first two books.
I can’t remember the name of the woman who narrated the audiobook, but she did a phenomenal job. She had a British accent, which seemed appropriate for an English-speaking Britt-Marie, and she did distinct voices for each character, which is my personal marker of what makes a good narrator.
This book picks up right where My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry left off. Britt-Marie has just left her cheating husband while he’s in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, and now she’s in an unemployment office trying to get a job. Not because she needs the money, but because she’s 62 and afraid she’ll end up one of those old women who will die all alone in her apartment and no one will notice until the neighbors start to complain of the smell, and then “what will people think?”
I must confess that, as a single person who lives alone, especially since I started working from home full time, this is something I think about a lot, too – minus “the what will people think?” part. It’s one of the reasons I got a dog.
But I can’t see Britt-Marie as a dog owner, although having one would probably do her some good. As I got to know her in Backman’s second book, I realized she was more than just “an old nagbag,” she was sad and lonely and disappointed. By the end of the first chapter of this book, I started to think she must also be slightly autistic.
She is so set on always using coasters and always having dinner at exactly 6 o’clock and having her silverware be arranged just so that it goes a little beyond the anal retentive and into autistic. That, combined with her inability to understand humor and her halting attempts to try to get along with people made my autism radar go off, although admittedly it might be a tad oversensitive in a culture that seems to be hyperaware of autism right now. Either way, I don’t think Backman was trying to write an autistic character.
Backman spends much of the book making the reader hate Kent (Britt-Marie’s husband). He always talked down to women in general and Britt-Marie in particular. He places too high a value on material objects and his job and “Germany,” and always manages to talk Britt-Marie into delaying her dreams until his have been realized, except they’re apparently never realized. He was also apparently constantly telling Britt-Marie that she was socially inept and unfunny. They did that for a few decades until he cheated on her and his mistress was the one who called Britt-Marie to notify her of Kent’s heart attack.
Backman makes it sound like Kent caused Britt-Marie to lose her sense of humor – he wouldn’t allow her to laugh and so she never laughed. But I don’t buy that. Even the most loyal of wives would be making and laughing at her own personal jokes silently to herself, even if she learned not to say them out loud in front of her husband. And if Kent and/or his friends were anywhere near as funny as Britt-Marie insists they were, certainly she would have laughed at some of their jokes. Hence my unprofessional diagnosis of her autism.
Anyway, the reader gets all this in bits and pieces as Britt-Marie struggles to find a job and, in the process, drives “the lady at the unemployment office” absolutely bonkers due to her inability to understand how the job market works. You look for a job and then sit and wait to hear back. Yes, it sucks. Deal with it.*
By some miracle (and bureaucratic failure) Britt-Marie gets a job in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere looking after a building that has been kind of marked for destruction, but the paperwork hasn’t gone through yet. So she sets about cleaning as soon as she gets there. Britt-Marie cleans a lot, and this is also something I can relate to. It’s not my favorite past time, but it is a way to get into a kind of meditative state while doing something productive, and it’s an especially great way for people who are feeling helpless to feel like they’re doing something.
The plot of the story isn’t great, but I don’t go to Backman for great plots. I go to him for great characters and he has yet to disappoint me.
Britt-Marie ends up making friends and getting involved in the community of this tiny town, called Borg. She’s become the coach of the local children’s soccer league, made her building look spic and span, and might even have a romance going with the local cop when Kent shows up saying he wants her back.
So the plot is not original, but I give Backman a lot of points for execution. Considering no one liked Kent at any point in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and how much time Backman spent at the beginning of Britt-Marie Was Here getting us to actively hate him, I was pleasantly surprised that, by the end of this book, I didn’t hate him.
Backman/Britt-Marie also spend a lot of time explaining how many years she has devoted to this one man and how hard it is to just start over again. She says she’s simply too old to start over, which I don’t believe. But the sentiment did ring eerily true to some of my own family’s dark humor.
Sometimes when we joke about how my mom should leave my dad (they have been very happily married for more than 40 years and neither of them has the slightest inclination or desire to get divorced), my mom will say, “But I’ve already got this one trained. If I left him, I’d have to start all over again!” And there’s really no comeback for that.
And the same goes for Britt-Marie, except she’s not joking. She really did leave her husband and now she’s really contemplating going back. And as she insists it’s too hard to throw away decades of a life built together, it’s hard to argue with that. Although in Britt-Marie’s case (unlike my mom), the reader gets the feeling Britt-Marie is trying to convince herself more than anyone else.
I also appreciate that Backman doesn’t tell us which man Britt-Marie chooses – or if she chose either man. One of the kids she’s grown close to encourages her to leave both men and go to Paris. She’s always wanted to go to Paris, but never has for various reasons. I like to imagine Britt-Marie headed off to Paris to do something just for herself for a change, but it’s just as likely she went back to Kent or even surprised herself by knocking on the cop’s door. Backman leaves it open ended and I kind of like that.
What did you guys read this week? Anything else with great characters?
*P.S. I loved Britt-Marie’s constant insistence that she was “very busy” and had lots to do, despite the fact that she was unemployed, childless, and separated from her husband. It’s just one of the ways we all convince ourselves we’re still alive, and I found it to be very human and relateable.