After My Grandmother Sends Her Regards & Apologises, the next Fredrik Backman novel in my possession was Britt-Marie Was Here.
It’s a spin-off centred around one of the secondary characters in My Grandmother. If you haven’t read the previous book, don’t worry: Britt-Marie can still be read as a standalone because it is unrelated to Elsa’s adventure and it retells the main character’s backstory from scratch. Readers who have read My Grandmother, on the other hand, will learn more details about Britt-Marie’s past and discover a new side of this woman, who had previously seemed too annoying to bear.
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
Original name: Britt-Marie var här (Swedish)
Author: Fredrik Backman
Translator: Henning Koch
Edition: 2016 (Hardback)
Genre: humour, contemporary
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
For as long as anyone can remember, Britt-Marie has been an acquired taste. It’s not that she’s judgemental, or fussy, or difficult – she just expects things to be done in a certain way. A cutlery drawer should be arranged in the right order, for example (knives, forks, then spoons). We’re not animals, are we?
But behind the passive-aggressive, socially awkward, absurdly pedantic busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams and a warmer heart than anyone around her realizes…
Britt-Marie was here… but where did she come from?
Britt-Marie is a 63-year-old crossword-loving, hygiene freak. Highly civilised, she is so obsessed with order and rules that it makes her a bit socially incompetent. You either laugh at her ineptitude or become frustrated at her judgemental behaviour (though, really, she’s just well-meaning, as the ironic narrative voice likes to remind us).
And yet, behind this “nag-bag” lies a story of tragic loss and hunger for love. After a youth spent in the shadow of her beloved sister and regularly denigrated by her mother, she marries Kent. But even he seems incapable of showing her the love and respect she deserves, as he often passes comments on her lack of imagination and social abilities. Still, Britt-Marie believes that love can save their marriage and so she adapts herself to her husband’s “plans”, thus becoming a submissive housewife. Until one day, after twenty years, she cracks and leaves the marital home.
On her own for the very first time, Britt-Marie finds herself in Borg, a small and isolated community hit by the financial crisis. She takes on the temporary job of caretaker at the recreation centre and acquaints herself with the wary residents. Without quite knowing how, she also becomes the coach of the local football team made up of passionate, albeit quasi-incompetent, young teens. Thanks to these encounters and events, Britt-Marie learns how to be free and discovers that she’s capable of doing what her husband had always said she couldn’t. She also penetrates through the hard shell of the adolescents and the other residents. But what will she do when the past comes knocking on her door?
Fearing the formula
After this third novel, I’m starting to understand the Backman formula: choose a difficult person (a curmudgeon, a little Miss Know-it-all, a finicky) as the main character; select a handful of secondary characters (plus animals), making sure you hit all the diversity buttons (as in sexual orientation, race and disability); present said characters as annoying caricatures and then turn them into endearing persons, highlighting the sense of community; unravel the story with a mix of flashbacks and flashforwards and a generous dose of quotable (sometimes clichéd) feel-good phrases; make it an overall heartwarming, tear-jerking, smile-inducing story.
I have to admit that during the first chapters of My Grandmother, I thought that A Man Called Ove might have been a one-off for me. I had the same fears before even starting Britt-Marie. After all, I don’t often read such books, usually preferring more psychological depth and human darkness. However, all fears were squashed by mid-book. Why? Well, a) I really liked Britt-Marie, after all; b) I liked how the story developed into a somewhat unexpected finale (I was appalled when I realised that I had been rooting for the conventional ending which the novel had been cheekily hinting at); c) it made me teary, it made me smile, it comforted me.
Britt-Marie is… me
Britt-Marie turned out to be the most relatable Backman character for me. She’s very similar to Ove, except she’s more of a pedant and less of a grump, and I think it’s easier to like her than Ove. Although I don’t have fixations like hers, I could feel her pain at being judged as inflexible, unimaginative and unpassionate. Like her, I often want to tell people “Hey, I’m here! Please notice me!”. Her self-control and missed opportunities inevitably reminded me of my own, but then her progress encouraged me to keep seeking autonomy and self-acceptance. Besides that, I appreciated the bittersweet stories of some of the other characters that emerge from a setting defined by the financial crisis and all its consequences. A passage, pronounced by a minor character to Britt-Marie, perfectly encapsulates the main thought behind such a book:
My mother worked for the social services all her life. She always said that in the middle of all the crap, in the thick of it all, you always had a sunny story turning up. Which makes it all worthwhile. […] You’re my sunny story, Britt-Marie. (page 253)
So, thank you Fredrik Backman for providing me with a splendid break from my boring assigned texts and my usual too-serious-to-bear reads, for showing me the different shades of humanity, and for telling me that there’s always something good to look out for “in the middle of all the crap”. And thank you for choosing to reveal this through a difficult character; it just makes it even more special.
Dear fans of A Man Called Ove, make sure you don’t miss out on Britt-Marie Was Here. If like me, you were slightly put off by the fantasy element in My Grandmother, in this book you’ll rediscover what made you fall in love with Ove. If you’re still new to Backman, I encourage you to give this a try, especially if you love entertaining and emotional reads and need some positivity in your life.