Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Anxious People - Fredrik Backman

Summary:  Looking into real estate isn't usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage.  The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can't fix up their own marriage.  There's a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can't seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place.  Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment's only bathroom, and you've got the worst group of hostages in the world. 

Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be.  And all of them -- the bank robber included -- desperately crave some sort of rescue.  As the authorities and the media surround the premises, these reluctant allies will reveal surprising truths about themselves and set in motion a chain of events so unexpected that even they can hardly explain what happens next. 

Humorous, compassionate, and wise, Anxious People is an ingeniously constructed story about the enduring power of friendship, forgiveness, and hope -- the things that save us, even in the most anxious of times.  (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Anxious People tells the story of a bunch of idiots, a botched bank robbery, a singular apartment viewing, an unusual hostage situation, an aging rabbit, and the bridge that connects them.  I'm not going to get into all that though -- too many spoilers. The chapters alternate between different characters' perspectives of the events in and near the apartment, background and side stories, as well as a series of interviews between the released hostages and the two police officers tasked with getting to the bottom of things.  Taken as a whole, the plot is a bit of a hot mess, but it's also quite an adventure.

There is a lot to love about this book, but I'm going to start with the lows and end on the highs, so let's just dive right in.  First, the plot had several twists of varying depths and intensity, but I felt like I saw the biggest ones coming from the very beginning.  I won't go into any detail, but they seemed so painfully obvious to me that if it weren't for the meant-to-be-dramatic 'reveals' later on, I'm wouldn't have been certain they were twists.  Second, the narration is third-person omniscient and, though I loved the narrator's 'voice', it often broke the fourth wall and addressed the reader directly posing certain philosophical questions which I found distracting. Finally, the narrator and the characters often careened off on conversational tangents.  I suspect this was an intentional, stylistic move by the author, but one that my tired mom brain had a hard time following, although it did create some get-on-with-it tension that kept me furiously flipping pages. 

Now, on to the highs.  Fredrik Backman is the king of character driven writing. At least, it feels like that to me.  I've read and reviewed a few of his other novels, namely A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie was Here, and both are filled with well-crafted, uniquely relatable and oddly loveable characters.  If you've read Ove, you'll understand what I mean when I say that while not many of Backman's characters feel particularly endearing at the outset; most are complete wrecks.  And yet somehow, by the end, you are half in love with all of them -- even the crochety ones.  Backman orchestrates this massive shift in a way that feels organic, by first presenting his characters at 'face-value' and allowing the reader to make their own assumptions.  Then he begins dropping crumbs of backstory or placing the characters in situations that show them in a different light.  Anxious People is simply brimming with these unexpected revelations and as the reader comes to more fully see and understand these characters, they can't help but see the good in even the most unlikeable ones.

Fredrik Backman's writing is full of delightfully dry humor, but is also surprisingly insightful, tender, and compelling.  The author writes broken and struggling in a way that helps the reader empathize with almost every situation, even if it is far from their personal experience.  I also loved the ending -- it warmed me all the way down to my toes -- and the unexpected connections between the characters, but my favorite part of Anxious People is the overarching message of compassion and empathy for others.  To show what I mean, I'd like to share a few excerpts from the beginning...and then the end of the book.  It will be in italics below, so you can skip it if you like, but I promise it won't "spoil" anything.

At the beginning:  

We don't have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there'll be another one coming along tomorrow....Sometimes it hurts, it really hurts, for no other reason than the fact that our skin doesn't feel like it's ours.  Sometimes we panic, because the bills need paying and we have to be grown-up and we don't know how, because it's so horribly, desperately easy to fail at being grown-up. 

Because everyone loves someone, and anyone who loves someone has had those desperate nights were we lie awake trying to figure out how we can afford to carry on being human beings.  Sometimes that makes us do things that seem ridiculous in hindsight, but which felt like the only way out at the time....

At the end: 

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 to insert USB leads.  We're looking for something to cling on to, something to fight for, something to look forward to.  We're doing all we can to teach our 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.  

Perhaps we hurried past each other in a crowd today, and neither of us noticed, and the fibers of your coat brushed against mine for a single moment and then we were gone.  I don't know who you are. ...

I don't know about you, but those passages make me feel seen and they inspire me to be more intentional about trying to see others.  The entire story is a timely, gentle reminder that everyone we meet is dealing with their own issues, insecurities, and anxiety and that we must make the effort to understand others and find common ground.  

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: A handful of swear words. Some discussion of situations like divorce, depression, infidelity, anxiety, and suicide that might be triggering.  Two of the female characters are in a committed relationship.  Some vague discussion of and reference to intimacy.

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