This is a good time of year for a heartwarming story, even a predictable one. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman fits the bill.
Ove is a Saab man. He’s not employed by the Swedish automaker, he’s loyal to it. It’s his gauge of measuring a person’s character (in Ove’s world it usually applies to men). Ove is all about character. He raises his eyebrows at those who drive BMWs or Audis; he tolerates Volvos.
Set in his ways like a train on a track, Ove only cares about his route. Except, anyone sharing his path must abide by the same rules he does. He doesn’t necessarily set the directives only that he follows them to an extreme.
At times funny and sad, Ove’s story is initially about his decision that it’s time for his life to end. Of course, this is no laughing matter, but humor surfaces as life intervenes in his efforts to take action. Distractions get in the way. He must contend with neighbors, a stray cat, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his wife Sonja.
Set in Sweden, Backman alternates chapters to reveal Ove’s past and its impact on the present. It’s easy to visualize Ove as a grumpy old man, although he’s only 59; it’s also not difficult to see, or at least initially suspect, there’s more than meets the eye. It’s most evident in his love for Sonja. What happens comes as a surprise to Ove and the reader.
A Man Called Ove
Three and three-quarters Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2014
Epic Russian novels have long appealed to me for many reasons: the history, the descriptions of stark landscapes and lively urban settings, the storytelling, and the names. Ah, the names.
Author Amor Towles ties all these elements together in A Gentleman in Moscow.
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, known as Sasha among a few and as the Count among many, is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s grand Metropol Hotel in 1922. This is an engrossing tale about a man who grew up with every comfort and advantage during tsarist Russia. Although his lifestyle changes, it unexpectedly expands.
At the beginning of his confinement, the mother country is in the early stages of political and economic changes that continue for decades. The Count is undeterred by his reversal of fortunes. Towles presents a contented man, knowledgeable, kind, charismatic, happy with routines, yet imaginative. As the Count’s story moves through the years he faces challenges greater than the restrictions of his movements, but always with a good attitude.
Towles injects humor and history with a hotel guestbook of intriguing characters. Interestingly, each chapter begins with the letter A, like the count’s (and author’s) first name.
Here is a novel of the never-wanting-it-to-end variety. The Count’s humanity, his relationships/friendships, and the rich memories of his childhood overshadow his loss of freedom. At times it’s easy to forget that he is a captive in a majestic hotel. He can’t actually check out any time he wants, but why would he want to leave?
A Gentleman in Moscow
In Emma Cline’s novel, The Girls, narrator Evie Boyd recalls her involvement as a 14-year-old with a Charles Manson-like cult. The names are changed, the location is different, but Evie’s perspective still provides enough nuanced similarities to the Helter Skelter summer of 1969.
The setting is northern California. Evie’s parents are divorced and after falling out with her childhood friend, Evie meets Suzanne who’s a few years old. Suzanne introduces Evie to Mitch and others at a commune on a nearby ranch. He is meant to be charismatic and profound, but it’s Suzanne that Evie is drawn to. She ingratiates herself into life at the ranch to be with Suzanne. Her interest is occasionally reciprocated by the older girl.
Cline imbues Evie with all the pathos associated with a young teenager. Her obsession with Suzanne is puzzling: is it sexual or is it her need for an involved maternal figure?
When Evie returns to the ranch after a brief absence, its allure has begun to fade. She can sense there’s an itch to scratch, but isn’t sure of its source. It’s at this point that a few inconsistencies surface in the narrative.
Years later, reflecting on that summer, Evie wonders what kept her from participating in the violence carried out by Suzanne and others under Mitch’s directive. If she hadn’t been told to leave, would she/could she have acted as they did? This raises the question of how we think we might respond in certain situations and how we actually do.
Random House, 2016
Who’d imagine that an uninvited guest who shows up at a baby’s christening with a bottle of gin could divide, then fuse, two families over a span of 50 years? Ann Patchett, of course. Humor, tragedy, quirky, yet believable characters result in a compelling story.
In Commonwealth, Patchett creates a novel within a novel – of sorts. She deftly illustrates the Rube Goldberg effect initiated by one man’s attraction to another man’s wife. The havoc it inflicts is expected, the alliances it forms aren’t.
The Cousins and Keating families are brought together when Beverly Keating divorces her husband to marry Bert Cousins. Beverly is a beauty with two young daughters; Bert, the gin-carrying party crasher, is egocentric and the father of two girls and two boys. The Keating girls move with Beverly and Bert to Virginia, while his kids stay with their mother in southern California during the school year.
The six children spend summers together in Virginia. Their combined disdain for their parents and unrestricted activities form bonds that continue into adulthood. The novel begins in the early ‘60s long before the concept of helicopter parenting took flight. Bert hastily retreats when his kids arrive, leaving Beverly, who’s emotionally detached, to manage alone.
Much of the narrative follows Franny, Beverly’s younger daughter. Franny’s relationship with her sister and step-siblings is told in flashbacks moving from childhood to young adult to middle age. In Patchett’s hands, Franny is optimistic; she looks for the best– even when it’s unlikely to surface.
My favorite passage by Lauren Groff is where she signed my copy of Fates and Furies at the request of my son Tim’s girlfriend. Groff wrote: “Robin – Mariana is the most beautiful and wonderful, isn’t she!” The answer is yes. It is such a stark contrast to the tenor of the novel; I’m led to believe that Groff doesn’t have it out for everyone, which is a comforting thought.
The novel is divided into two categories: fates and furies. The first section begins with newlyweds, Lotto and Mathilde, consummating their marriage on the beach, but he is the focus here. It’s all about him: childhood, banishment from his family to boarding school, college days and efforts to succeed as an actor are portrayed in detail; but not too much as to squelch the imagination. Little is revealed about Mathilde – until furies, which is aptly named.
In an effort to avoid the need for spoiler alerts, suffice it to say there are elements of Gone Girl meets Claire Underwood.
Groff’s writing is clever, humorous and rich in detail. The references to various plays and Greek tragedies, however, are distracting metaphors.
Full of unlikable characters, the book, nonetheless, was appealing. Lotto’s a selfish man who exudes charm. Real charm, not something he turns on and off at will. Mathilde is mysterious and bitchy. They are flawed thanks to the characteristics Groff imbues in them. Neither is someone I want to meet, but I was more than content to know them through the distance of fiction.
Fates and Furies
Riverhead Books, 2015
Foodies and artists, often one in the same, should enjoy Lucy Knisley’s comic book memoir, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. It’s humorous, educational and a quick read.
At an early age her parents instilled an appreciation of gourmet food. I’d like to think I did, too, with my own kids, but I never considered serving my toddler children poached salmon. I did, however, insist that they at least try new things even if they only took one bite. The result – years later – is they all have fine palates and enjoy a good meal.
But back to Knisley.
She shares stories about leaving the City for upstate New York following her parents’ divorce. She relates her initial displeasure at having to be around farms, chickens and seed stores. Eventually, her text and accompanying illustrations reflect a tone of gratitude. It’s clear she has good relationships with both parents, but she does include some of the rough spots they endured. These were, no surprise, Knisley’s teenage years. She makes no effort to (literally) draw herself in a better light; this is a highlight.
Humor underlies these chronicles of coming-of-age, food cravings, travel and love for her parents. Knisely also includes illustrated recipes, cooking tips and explanations of cooking techniques.
Among my favorite chapters is the account of her efforts to recreate the croissants she so enjoyed in Italy. Her determination is as evident as her failure, but her humor saves the day. This is always the best ingredient no matter the endeavor.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
First Second Books, 2013
To say A Little Life is a big book is an understatement. At slightly more than 800 pages it’s, in the words of my greatest presidential fear: Huge, very, very huge. Hanya Yanagihara has crafted a novel that traverses several lives, particularly Jude St. Francis’s. The name is not insignificant. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.
Jude is one of a quartet of friends, Willem, Malcomb and JB, who meet in college. Although the friendships among the four are always part of the story, most of the narrative revolves around Jude and Willem. Their backstories, their lives before college, define them. In fact, Jude’s past is what drives the novel.
From the onset, it’s clear that Jude has secrets. His inability to reveal them is a compelling, and often frustrating, element. It is also evident that Jude is the physically weakest of the foursome. He walks with a limp, which he reluctantly and vaguely attributes to a car accident. He has no family or past connections. He’s awed by the care and companionship of his friends.
Yet, little by little Jude’s history is divulged. As the four men grow older their friendship is often tested. They each pursue different careers, but Jude and Willem remain particularly close throughout.
The power of Yanagihara’s work lies in the personalities and the situations she creates. The author illustrates the definition of friendship through the actions of the characters and shows that the strongest bonds are made of trust. Then love.
A Little Life
Anchor Books, 2016