07 July 2016

Books: Britt-Marie Was Here By Fredrick Backman (2016)

If there has been a theme that has been threaded throughout the three novels by bestselling Swedish author Fredrick Backman is that his fastidious protagonist are forced to navigate in a cold world that does not appreciate their ideals and thus forces them into a challenging bit of circumstance. Much like A Man Called Ove, Britt-Marie (who was a supporting character in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry) is a bit compulsive in the way she believes things should be done, and uses the barometer of a well kept cutlery drawer to decide who is human and who is an animal. 

In Britt-Marie Was Here, we get a better look into what made her whom she is: the loss of an older sister that shattered her parents and tossed her into the wine dark sea of being neglected and restrained by those around her from that day forward. To compensate, she creates lists and follows them. She can’t stand messes, so she is endlessly cleaning things with baking soda and a cleaner named Faxin (the Swedish version of Formula 409?), she starts her day at 6am (because only lunatics stay in bed longer), eats dinner at precisely 6pm. Britt-Marie does not consider herself passive-aggressive, or even obsessive compulsive, just considerate. It's just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention.

But like all heroes, Britt-Marie is forced to act after walking away from her forty-year marriage; she’s grown weary of her husband infidelities (but still loves him). Seeking a job (which is brilliant in its own way), she ends up in Dickensian-like town of Borg –which can be best described as a “community built along a road.” There she finds a small municipality in the grips of a slow death (mostly from an economic downturn, but clearly Borg was failing before). Sent to run the recreation center (until closes in three weeks), she discovers a world of sullied and noisy lost children, muddy floors, and a potential new friend who is a rat. 

“As for the citizens of Borg, with everything that they know crumbling around them, the only thing that they have left to hold onto is something Britt-Marie absolutely loathes: their love of soccer. When the village’s youth team becomes desperate for a coach, and they set their sights on her. She’s the least likely candidate, but their need is obvious and there is no one else to do it.

“Thus begins a beautiful and unlikely partnership. In her new role as reluctant mentor to these lost young boys and girls, Britt-Marie soon finds herself becoming increasingly vital to the community. And even more surprisingly, she is the object of romantic desire for a friendly and handsome local policeman named Sven. In this world of oddballs and misfits, can Britt-Marie finally find a place where she belongs?”

Yes, the plot is a bit clunky and contrived (more so than his previous novels) that teeters on parody, but I found some interesting aspect of Britt-Marie that I could identify with. Her husband calls her “socially incompetent” and negative, which is why people don’t like her that much (especially her step-children) and does not want to spend time with her. After settling in at the center in Borg, she stares out the window, watching the children play soccer and sees the Sven: “For a short moment she was afraid that he was going to come over and knock on the door.” But when he leaves, Britt-Marie is “disappointed when he didn’t” knock. 

This is me in many ways. I want to be part of something, but know I have a tendency to speak my mind, which some feel is more negative than helpful. Perhaps in my mind, I see myself as being considerate, but I’m just being an asshole? I mean, I also will beg-off on things, only to feel jealous when I see postings on Facebook of my friends having fun. The same thing happens when they don’t call me (because they’re apparently done with my passive-aggressiveness and negativity) and I see them having fun without me and I can’t figure out why they didn’t even try to invite me. It’s a vicious circle of Hell I’ve fallen into.

Anyways, the town, the kids, and even the rat are as quirky as you can get without collapsing in on itself. It’s still charming, often amusing, and bitter sweet.

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