Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Britt-Marie was Here - Fredrik Backman

Summary:  Britt-Marie can't stand a mess, but that's exactly what her life has become.  Leaving behind an unfaithful husband and a lifetime of taking care of everyone else before herself, she moves to the backwater town of Borg for a job looking after a crumbling recreation center, the favorite hangout of the town's supremely untalented children's soccer team.

With her strict views about all things from the proper arrangement of a cutlery drawer to the appropriate time to wake up, Britt-Marie knows exactly how those around her should live their lives -- and she isn't shy about sharing her opinions.  But hidden inside this socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and warmer heart than anyone around her realizes.

As the fastidious Britt-Marie is drawn into the daily doings, hopes, and dreams of her unpredictable fellow citizens, she is faced with new challenges that require more than her formidable powers of organization and unrivaled knowledge of cleaning products can handle.  She must learn to let down her guard and connect.  In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs? (Summary from book - Image from

My Review:  Well, Fredrik Backman did it again.  Back in the fall of 2017, I fell head over heels for A Man Called Ove, the story of a grumpy old man who becomes involved in the lives of his neighbors (whether he likes it or not).  Now, in the great Quarantine of 2020, I have fallen in love with a little old lady named Britt-Marie.

Britt-Marie, like Ove, is quite the unlikeable character at first.  She is tactless, inflexible, and entirely too free with her opinion.  From the very first chapter, when Britt-Marie starts harassing the poor woman at the unemployment office over everything from her modern hairstyle to her lack of coasters, I kept having to remind myself that I didn't like Ove either (not right away), and that Britt-Marie was likely to improve upon further acquaintance.  So, I kept reading. As the story continues, and with the occasional glimpse into her illuminating backstory, Britt-Marie begins a glorious transformation from rigid rule-monger to a wonderfully kindhearted, devoted, resilient, and courageous woman.  Sitting here, at the end of the book, I find it rather likely that she was always those things deep down, only now it was easier for me to see.

Fredrik Backman is a master at writing fully developed, authentic, multi-faceted characters, and Britt-Marie is not the only character worth appreciating  Vega, the hard-headed and furious soccer player. Sven, the soft-spoken police officer. Sami, a devoted brother with dubious friends. Ben (aka Pirate). Dino. Toad. Omar. Bank. The nameless woman at the unemployment office. The alcoholic mechanic/pizzeria owner/postal worker/ grocery store manager only ever known as 'Somebody." Even Kent, the easiest person to hate (and, boy, did I), had more sides than just one. Each character set up shop in my mind, with their own quirks and side stories, and didn't seem minded to leave after I turned the final page. They linger like an after-party that has every intention of leading to a proper book hangover.

One of my favorite things about Fredrik Backman's writing is how easily it made me feel.  He excels at writing about the outliers -- the broken, lonely, and misunderstood.  From the very first page, I was moved to emotional extremes in one way or another, be it annoyance, exasperation, desperation, pity, sadness, sympathy, empathy, fondness, admiration, or love.  This global tour of all. the. feelings continued throughout the story and onto the very last page of the book.  Initially, I hoped for a slightly different ending, but, after I sat with it for a few minutes, I realized that to end any other way than it actually did would have cheapened it.  And so, I am content.

The evolution of Britt-Marie's character offered plenty of opportunities for introspection.  Is it ever too late to change?  Could you take a leap into the scary unknown?  Is it possible to pursue your own dreams after a lifetime of squelching those fires?  What makes someone happy?  What really matters in life? All food for thought.  And chewy, at that.

Looking back, I see bits and pieces of myself in Britt-Marie.  I'm not thrilled about certain similarities, but there you have it.  I like things just so.  I get exasperated when people do things differently than I think they should be done (ahem...there is only one right way to load the dishwasher). It's also hard to be a stay-at-home-mom, constantly overlooked by the world at large, cleaning up messes all day, and not identify in some way with Britt-Marie's desire to be seen, validated, and appreciated.  I think that's, perhaps, why I love the title most of all.  It says: Britt-Marie was here. She mattered.  And so do you.

Overall, Britt-Marie was Here is an undeniably satisfying journey of personal transformation, where the reader undergoes just as much of a transformation of opinion as the characters themselves.  It's a story that I highly recommend.  Along with Ove.  Because, c'mon.  Ove.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars  (4.75 if you aren't bothered by language)

For the sensitive reader:  One male character goes on a date with another boy, briefly mentioned.  There is enough profanity that I eventually stopped trying to keep track of numbers, but not so much that I felt it overrode the overall message of the story.  It was also more of an issue with some characters than others. 

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