Originally published in Sweden, this charming debut novel by Backman should find a ready audience with English-language readers.
The book opens helpfully with the following characterizations about its protagonist: “Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s torch.” What the book takes its time revealing is that this dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon has a heart of solid gold. Readers will see the basic setup coming a mile away, but Backman does a crafty job revealing the full vein of precious metal beneath Ove’s ribs, glint by glint. Ove’s history trickles out in alternating chapters—a bleak set of circumstances that smacks an honorable, hardworking boy around time and again, proving that, even by early adulthood, he comes by his grumpy nature honestly. It’s a woman who turns his life around the first time: sweet and lively Sonja, who becomes his wife and balances his pessimism with optimism and warmth. By 59, he's in a place of despair yet again, and it’s a woman who turns him around a second time: spirited, knowing Parvaneh, who moves with her husband and children into the terraced house next door and forces Ove to engage with the world. The back story chapters have a simple, fablelike quality, while the current-day chapters are episodic and, at times, hysterically funny. In both instances, the narration can veer toward the preachy or overly pat, but wry descriptions, excellent pacing and the juxtaposition of Ove’s attitude with his deeds add plenty of punch to balance out any pathos.
In the contest of Most Winning Combination, it would be hard to beat grumpy Ove and his hidden, generous heart.