Book Review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Title: Anxious People
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a poignant comedy about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Viewing an apartment normally doesn’t turn into a life-or-death situation, but this particular open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes everyone in the apartment hostage. As the pressure mounts, the eight strangers slowly begin opening up to one another and reveal long-hidden truths.

As police surround the premises and television channels broadcast the hostage situation live, the tension mounts and even deeper secrets are slowly revealed. Before long, the robber must decide which is the more terrifying prospect: going out to face the police, or staying in the apartment with this group of impossible people.

In Anxious People, an ill-prepared and not very talented bank robber inadvertently seeks shelter in an apartment that’s open for viewing, turning a failed robbery into a hostage situation. For the people at the apartment viewing, being held hostage (by a robber none view as particularly dangerous) is the least of their worries.

The eight people present at the apartment all have stories to share, which we learn over the course of the book. How and why they all end up at this apartment on New Year’s Eve is complicated, and as they open up to one another, we see common threads of worry over relationships, living up to expectations, family drama, success, and finding meaning in life.

The narrative jumps around in time, taking us back 10 years to a suicide that occurred on a bridge visible from the apartment balcony, through the events of the day of the viewing, plus the police interviews that take place after the hostages are released.

We also get to know two police officers in this small Swedish town, Jim and Jack, father and son, whose professional interactions are more than a little influenced by their sometimes difficult personal relationship and their shared losses and fears. The deeper they delve into the witness statements, the more the bank robber’s motivations and actions become clear, but that doesn’t answer the fundamental question of what happened once the hostages were released.

Naturally, Jim did his best to act like he definitely had experience, seeing as dads like teaching their sons things, because the moment we can no longer do that is when they stop being our responsibility and we become theirs.

This was a quick, captivating read, and yet the level of whimsy in the storytelling is set very, very high. Your tolerance for this kind of quirky, whimsical storytelling will determine whether you’ll enjoy this book. For me, it was mixed. I’ve loved some of Fredrik Backman’s books in the past, yet there’s at least one (My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry) where I couldn’t get past the first few chapters because of the whimsy factor. It was just too much.

He presses his thumbs hard against his eyebrows, as if he hopes they’re two buttons, and if he keeps them pressed at the same time for ten seconds he’ll be able to restore life to its factory settings.

Here, the quirky storytelling leads to some very funny observations and comments, yet it’s all a bit much as a whole. The writing veers toward the precious at times, which tried my patience. A lot. I often enjoy quirky writing, but the sheer volume of it throughout Anxious People made it tough for me to enjoy.

Overall, I really liked the strange bunch of characters who find unexpected common ground through this one weird experience, an experience that teaches them all about how lives becomes mingled and how random occurrences can lead to profound change.

The truth? The truth about all this? The truth is that this was a story about many different things, but most of all about idiots. Because we’re doing the best we can, we really are. We’re trying to be grown-up and love each other and understand how the hell you’re supposed ot insert USB-leads. We’re looking for something to cling onto, something to fight for, something to look forward to. We’re doing all we can to teach out children how to swim. We have all of this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine.

This wasn’t my favorite Backman book (I’d have to go with A Man Called Ove or Beartown), but I do look forward to continue reading his books, and have at least two from his backlist that I still need to read.

Anxious People is recommended for readers who enjoy character studies and quirkiness, with a smattering of deeper life lessons threaded throughout.

Take A Peek Book Review: A Man Called Ove

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

man-called-ove

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

 

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed A Man Called Ove, especially as I moved further into the story. At the outset, it felt almost too familiar — yet another grumpy old man who finds a new lease on life thanks to the interference of quirky neighbors; a man who finds it harder and harder to maintain his isolation and bitterness, despite his best efforts. 

And yes, there is that, but there are greater depths as well, as we learn more about Ove’s earlier life and what’s actually going on in his head and his heart. With each layer of the past revealed, we get a deeper insight into the secret joys and sorrows of Ove’s life, and come to understand why he’s ended up where he is when we first meet him.

Again, the cast of supporting characters seems a bit familiar — the old friend, the overly friendly and overweight young man next door, the extremely persistent pregnant woman with a hapless husband… and the bedraggled, homeless cat who ends up being the key to breaking through Ove’s outer shell. Still, despite feeling like I’ve read variations of this story before, by the end I was hopelessly caught up in the emotional impact of the story and very much invested in Ove and his ragtag gang of neighbors and partners in crime, so to speak.

I had one small quibble — it was a little disconcerting to reconcile Ove’s age (59) with the description of him as being old and curmudgeonly. If we weren’t explicitly told his age, I would have put him at least another 20 years older.

That said, A Man Called Ove is a delightful read. I got through about 2/3 via audiobook before switching to print, simply because I was traveling and didn’t have a way to listen. The audiobook was quite fun (and taught me how to pronounce Ove’s name — it’s OO-va.) Either way, I have no problem recommending this book to anyone who enjoys quirky, unpredictable characters — but be warned: You must be okay with having your heart melted too.

I definitely want to read more by this author!

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The details:

Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman (translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch)
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: 2012
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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