This hasn’t been a fantastic year of reading for me so far.
I mean…I’ve read things I’ve liked. Some things I’ve loved pieces of, and I was tremendously moved by When Breath Becomes Air. But I haven’t been changed or ravished by any book.
Evrything’s just been OK.
(Which might say something about my emotional state this year as it has been, let’s face it, one of the most difficult times of my life. But A—that’s a topic for a different post and B—I refuse to believe that fiction, good fiction, is weaker than my troubles. I just haven’t found the right books.)
On last week’s trip to New York, I took along a copy of A Man Called Ove, mostly because I remembered, in the ten minutes or so I had at Barnes and Noble to find a book, that several of my bookish, blogging friends had loved it.
So I grabbed it and bought it and started reading it the second night of our trip. (We took the red eye to New York, during which I put my super power—I can sleep through anything—to great use, instead of reading like I usually do on a flight.)
And I was astounded.
Because it is as if the author, Fredrik Backman, took out my husband’s spirit and stuck it into a grumpy old Swedish man.
The details are different, of course. Since our cultures are different. But Kendell hates cats, and has heart troubles, and is good with fixing things. But mostly it's the grumpiness, the ranting, and the being annoyed by people’s incompetence, and the frustration over the unfairness of stupid charges like parking: totally the same. That dropped-jaw surprise of people just not knowing how to do something practical. And the anger, which seems like bitterness but really is just a way of coping with the difficult things life has given him. Just like Kendell.
As is the fact that, when push comes to shove, he’ll always help someone out. He’ll grumble, of course, but he’ll do it.
I read most of the book on the flight home, and then almost the rest of it once I’d gotten ahead of the travel laundry. I confess that I was probably less patient with Kendell during those days of reading, because it was like living in stereophonic grumpiness, grumpiness squared, caught in a grumpy sandwich with Kendell and Ove as the bread. (Crusty bread, obviously!)
I finished it sitting in the parking lot of Kaleb’s elementary school while I waited for the morning drop-off to finish so I could go pay his lunch money.
But I had to make myself presentable because the ending killed me. I sobbed—hard.
Because here’s the story: Ove is a grumpy old man living in Sweden, a widow who was recently forced to retire; so he’s decided his life is over and he is going to kill himself. But life keeps intervening. Life, in fact, brings a whole slew of new people into his world. He’s still grumpy, but they love him anyway. And as the story progresses, you learn about Ove’s life and experiences, and you start to see why he is grumpy, why he expects people to be self-sufficient, why he is annoyed at incompetence.
It made me think so much about my own marriage. About the people—mostly my mom and sister—who have said, in different ways but over and over again, that I am wasting my life to stick around a grumpy husband.
In the book, Ove’s wife Sonja is a bibliophile. She loves books, and has many, and even though this is a mystery to Ove, who doesn’t enjoy reading in the slightest (see: more bits of Kendell’s psyche), he builds her a bookcase.
That’s how Kendell is, too. He doesn’t, for example, understand why I like scrapbooking. But he still, in his grumpy way, supports me in doing it. He mostly doesn’t say much at my purchases and my stash. He puts up with the messes I make. And—he builds me bookcases. He put together an Ikea one just this weekend, properly of course, with all the screws in the right place.
He doesn’t get it but he’ll still help me do it.
That’s why Sonja stayed. And it’s why I stay, too. Because yes: I get eternally, bone-deep exhausted sometimes about the things he gets argumentative about. I don’t want to spend my emotional energy the way he does. But I also know that he is, despite his grumpiness, a good man whose life has brought him hard things. His coping mechanisms might not be the most pleasant…but they don’t negate the goodness.
I’m not sure I can say A Man Called Ove is really literature in the high, cultured, difficult sense. It’s a good story told well. But I loved it, for its characters and its slightly-ironic tone and its structure. I loved it because it acknowledges a truth in my life by putting it into the form of a story: It is hard to love a curmudgeon, and they quite often act in ways they shouldn't, but there is worth in it as well as underneath all that prickliness is something good and sweet and true. It does feel like it will be the novel I will remember the most from 2016, because it reminded me to be more patient, and also to be more quick to walk away from or to joke about the grumpiness (instead of engaging it by arguing back). It reminded me to look for the ways that Kendell shows me he loves me, even if he growls when he’s doing it. It made me have more faith in my choice, despite what my sister and mom think, to stay married to a curmudgeon.
Even especially curmudgeons need love, and I can give it to him.