Several years ago, a few members of the Wine Lovers Book Club read–and loved–Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. It was a side read (cheating, I know) so we didn’t discuss it as a group, but it prompted us to read another book of his together, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry. Since then, I went back to read Ove myself and recently read Backman’s Beartown, followed promptly by Britt-Marie Was Here.
As I noted in my Beartown review, it was good but difficult to read. Britt-Marie was more in keeping with Backman’s other books—in fact, it’s a spin-off from My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and follows a character in Grandmother that isn’t very likeable…until you begin to understand why Britt-Marie is the way she is. It’s almost a female-version of Ove: a “redemption story” featuring a cantankerous old person who everyone falls in love with in the end.
From the publisher:
When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg—of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it—she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?
Backman is terrific at creating lively and interesting characters. Among the aforementioned “odd assortment” are prim-and-critical on the outside Britt-Marie; Somebody, proprietor of Borg’s general store-pizzeria-coffee shop; Sven, a local policeman with a penchant for taking hobby classes; and Vega, a teenage girl who doesn’t care her soccer team is dreadful as long as she can play.
The characters aren’t just odd for odd’s sake. Their backstories touch on a variety of social issues, such as the wide and desolate divide between the haves and have-nots, and what constitutes a community or family. Like in Beartown, the town’s sport (this time it’s soccer, not hockey) is a rallying cry of hope in severely depressed economic conditions.
Britt-Marie’s story also calls into question the purpose of a life. When her sister dies at a young age and Britt-Marie’s parents fall apart, her sense of self grows dimmer and dimmer, until she nearly disappears. Throw in a husband who demeans her, and her life becomes one where she is an “extra”: her primary purpose is to take care of her husband and his children and their home.
I am in no way diminishing the valuable work of mother/wife/homemaker; rather, if all of those things are stripped away, as in Britt-Marie’s case, what is left? If you live for those things and then they are gone, what do you live for?
Backman’s answer to that question was the only dissatisfying part of the book. He seems to suggest that it is one’s dreams and hopes that should guide a life, even though Britt-Marie finds the most meaning and satisfaction when she is “in community,” loving and serving, and being loved by and served by, her friends.
Still, this was a great read and I’m glad I went back to Backman. Funny and moving, it’s a perfect diversion for a COVID-19 world.