Last weekend, I finished the book Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman—one of my favorite authors of this decade. This is the third book I’ve read by him, and I’m looking forward to reading his novella, which was released in English in December, and waiting for his next book, set to be available stateside around summertime.
This was the first book I’ve read by Backman that didn’t leave me saying, “Wow!” Because of this, I feel like reflecting back on my reading experience with him to kind of talk through why I felt this way about Britt-Marie was Here. I’ve published a version of this post as a review on Goodreads, but I wanted to embellish it for further thought here.
I appreciated A Man Called Ove firstly for its similarities to The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. Both are great portraits of the elderly, and they read like a conversation you might have with your grandfather, or another aging relative. Moreover, I enjoyed the quick wit that leapt out of very straightforward language. Part of me wonders if this shouldn’t be attributed to the translator, but clearly Backman has an appreciation for quick and simple situational humor. He seems like the kind person who can laugh at everyday occurrences. Another aspect of Ove I loved was his affection for his wife. One quote from the book that still sticks with me is, “People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.” In this element, Backman managed to capture that part of our hearts that always breaks at the beginning of Disney Pixar’s “Up.” It’s a huge component of what makes you invest in the man who is Ove, who might otherwise seem like nothing more than a grumpy old man. Finally, I love how the opening chapter of this book hangs in the balance until you’ve almost forgotten it, and then, VERY near the end, you read (paraphrased), And that’s why Ove was standing in the store asking about an iPad. All in all, Backman made you love his characters, watch their development, and get lost in love, laughter, and heartache over their general daily lives.
What I loved about My Grandmother Asked You to Tell You She’s Sorry stemmed from what I had also loved in Ove. This story took a little longer to get moving, but it finished in perfection. What I love about this story is how the reader is exposed to the nuances of the situations in ways that escape Elsa’s understanding. Much like the humor hidden in A Man Called Ove, the harsh reality of life and death are tucked away in the passages of this one. I also loved how all the lives of everyone around Elsa came together because of what her grandmother had done in life. Each person served a purpose in the end, and the plot still felt plausible because they were all simply repaying the debt they owe to Granny. At the same time, the reader really can’t predict everything that happens, so you’re left in this sort of awe over the results, and you can simply dwell in the emotions Elsa feels as well. Moreover, as someone who is extremely close with her grandmother, I greatly enjoyed reading about another girl’s experience getting to know here mom’s mom. I even appreciated the fact that this book alluded to the next, with the exodus of Britt-Marie and the promise of her own adventures.
Which brings us to the topic that’s really at hand.
I really, really, really wanted to enjoy this book as much as Backman’s other stories, but I simply couldn’t. While the potential was there, it all fell flat.
When I first realized that there would be a story dedicated to Britt-Marie, I was pretty excited. I felt that My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry only scratched the surface of her character. She was dismissed, pretty much literally, throughout the entire story. I figured she deserved her time in the spotlight. In addition, I love when authors address mental illness and social disorders in their books by applying them to their characters. Britt-Marie has no named disorders, but I would say it’s safe to assume she suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and perhaps some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well. Moreover, several of her behaviors imitate those who are on the Autism Spectrum. Regardless of what she is actually supposed to have—or to not have—her character spoke directly to the part of me that seeks to learn more about people who deal with these struggles. I dove into the text with all the hope and excitement that accompanies getting to know an acquaintance a little bit better.
Unfortunately, as delightful as it was to witness her working through her situations and learning how to adapt, I felt that she still never gained any significance. Unlike in My Grandmother…, however, she is the one who does a large amount of the dismissing. The entire premise of the book is that Britt-Marie “was here,” in Borg, and the people will remember that she had been because the town has changed. To be fair, a lot happens after Britt-Marie arrives in town, and a lot is going to stay different when she heads back out. However, I felt that everything that happened probably would have still happened even if Britt-Marie had, in fact, not been there. Unlike Ove and Granny, who drastically affected the lives of those around them (somewhat intentionally, mostly on accident), Britt-Marie remains a fairly passive character and does not strike me as a catalyst in the situations around her. Despite her presence in the middle of the story (and the town), a lot of her encounters reveal her to still be the “fly on the wall.” She doesn’t even manage to serve as the coach to the soccer team in the end because she has no license, so, while she supports them and takes the register, she has little influence over their actual experience. Moreover, even in the moments where her actions do change the future, she doesn’t seem to take anything away from them. While she has several opportunities to grow and change, she takes none of them, and is left pretty much where she started, except with a blue door on her white car—and she’s not even happy about it.
I also think that the story was lending itself toward a rather specific outcome in the end, but rather than taking the narrative to that place, Backman tried to fix his plot around a different ending that left me with zero closure. It is clear through both books in which she is present that Britt-Marie wants nothing more than to be a mother. And here, in this story, she is presented with three orphans in need of a mother—literally. Two of them even become wards of the state, in need of adoption. And the children are crazy about Britt-Marie. Yet, in response to their need, Britt-Marie goes to Paris.
For the longest time, it seemed that Britt-Marie would leave Kent, get with Sven, and raise Sami, Vega, and Omar with him. But none of that happens. Rather, Britt-Marie is overwhelmed by her moral compass (which is mostly dictated by her age, apparently) and decides to return to the life that she has spent the last months running from. The thought of adopting never crosses her mind, even after Sami has asked her to watch out for Vega and Omar and make sure they have a good home. Britt-Marie really doesn’t hang out long enough to make sure this happens. Even Sven “abandons” the children in the end under the assumption that some other set of parents, who already have children (and who, I might add, were not actual characters in this story until they come to Sami’s funeral), will step up and take over. To me, this doesn’t sound like either of these characters at all, and quite frankly challenges my belief that the story itself should exist. After all, if the entire plot builds to a point where Britt-Marie makes no choices and just goes on a holiday, why did she need to encounter these people in the first place? And how dare we then attribute her presence as worthwhile on their lives?
I was also irked by the morality that trumped all behavioral elements in the marriage of Britt-Marie and Kent in the end. Kent, clearly, has not changed. Even as he helps Britt-Marie achieve one of her personal goals (i.e. the soccer pitch [Does that even happen, by the way? It was never very clear, in my opinion.]), it is over and against her autonomy as an employed woman and in preparation for her to come home with him and return to life as normal. The story tells us honestly that Britt-Marie must choose between the soccer pitch and her job. Of course, Britt-Marie is the main decision-maker in deciding to have the field developed (again, does this even happen?), but that also points back to the problem. Not to mention that, at least verbally, Kent is extremely abusive! He dismisses Britt-Marie, even as she tries to explain to him why she left in the first place. And his strict understanding of gender roles, while at one time might have satisfied her, have ceased to apply now that she’s lived on her own.
I don’t think the story gives full appreciation to the fact that this is the first time Britt-Marie has really been on her own. She was self-sufficient when her mother turned ill, but she was not at that time also a single woman in charge of her life. Her mom dictated her every step, and shortly after Mom’s death, Britt-Marie married Kent. She has never had a place of her own, and rather than fully appreciating it or grasping its significance, Britt-Marie goes home.
Essentially, despite alluded-to growth, Britt-Marie has barely changed from the person she was when she fled her original home. We could see all through “My Grandmother…” that Britt-Marie was discontent and underappreciated in that life. She set out to escape it for some reason, clearly, but at the end of this novel she is headed back in the same direction, albeit through France instead of the most direct route.
I’m not saying that Britt-Marie should have run off with Sven, but I am saying that it should have taken more than a feeling of commitment to Kent and the thought, “You are too old to start over now” to convince her to return to an unhappy marriage. I appreciate Backman’s moral compass in most of his writing, but here I think it overwhelmed general common sense.
The whole story was not awful. Backman’s standbys were still present. The book reads like you are sitting next to an elderly relative on their front porch, listening to them talk about their life. This is perhaps my favorite element of Backman’s storytelling. Some books beg you to turn the pages faster and devour the story in one gulp, but Backman’s books can hang out for a time without rushing you. Many of the characters are lovable, including Somebody, who remains this sort of enigmatic antihero reminiscent of Everyman or Odysseus’ “Nobody.” The two men in the pizza shop each day are a perfect representation of small-town living. The town itself sounds beautiful, and the concepts at work are commonplace and comforting. There are the expected heart-wrenching moments that leave you invested in the individuals who experience them. When Ben scores the team’s only goal, and when Sami’s car doesn’t come back, I had actual tears in my eyes. And, of course, small moments make you giggle and even laugh out loud. His wit is, again, so quick and so simply you could easily miss it. These elements of his talent were still there, if overshadowed by a storyline that lost its direction—and may have never ended up anywhere.
This review turned more depressing that I was expecting it to, or than I meant for it to be. In the end, I’m not sad that I read this book, but I am sad that it did not turn out better than it did. I think, for his own good, Backman should move away from similar character types—older people encountering youths and having their lives changed for the better. Hopefully his next works will be able to stand on their own. He certainly hasn’t lost a reader in this experience. I look forward to taking some time in the next month or so to read through And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.
Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.
– Fredrick Backman, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry