Let me begin by saying that I love novels that are written about basic human feelings, basic beautiful, “out of the-mainstream” characters, like those in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye, Mrs. Ames, and A. J. Fikry. I loved all of the quirky characters in this book; each had his or her own peculiar trait which created the atmosphere within which a warm and caring community arose. There is no awful violence, brutal sex or very foul language; there is just the milk of human kindness hiding on every page you turn. Sit back and relax. You will smile as you read this, perhaps chuckle under your breath or laugh out loud, and sometimes, you may even shed a tear or two.
The story is about an irascible, but sweet, curmudgeon of a man, a man who sees the world in his own way and believes it his duty to let everyone know it. He is rigid and shows very little outward emotion, but inside, there is a very soft heart. Every day, he mourns the loss of his wife Sonja. She has “chosen” to die before him which isn’t the way it was supposed to happen. He wanted to go first. He doesn’t really know how to live without her; She was everything to him. Enter a new neighbor, Parvenah, and a variety of other odd characters, and then add a woebegone, bedraggled cat to the mix, and watch as life takes on a new meaning for Ove. Slowly, this mix of unusual characters begin to enrich his life, even without his acknowledgment of their effort or little acts of kindness. At first, none of the characters have names, rather they have disparaging nicknames provided by Ove, but as they become identified with their true names, the story’s humanity, as well as Ove’s, is revealed.
His forced retirement from his job because of his health before he was ready to stop working, coupled with the untimely loss of his wife, Sonja, has driven Ove to want to join her. At first, he seems obsessive/compulsive, inspecting the neighborhood, keeping everything just so, following rules to distraction, being essentially overcritical about everything and everyone, expecting perfection and perfect obedience to rules and regulations. Then, once you get to know Ove, you begin to understand who he is and begin to appreciate his behavior. If nothing else, the book is a testimony to the value of those individuals who seem different than the mainstream. They too have the ability to make enormous contributions to society. It is what people do, not what they talk about, that is the measure of the man, according to Ove.
Ove has come up against the bureaucracy many times and he soon begins to feel hopeless and helpless to change things. The cold, unfeeling administrative “white shirts” defeat him at every turn. They make decisions based on regulations that don’t take the individual situation into consideration, that don’t deal with concerns, human need or emotion. Everything to them is black and white. Like Ove, they are following rules, but Ove makes and follows rules for the treatment of inanimate objects, and these “white shirts” make rules for the treatment of human beings, against their wishes. Ove goes to war with the council. Often “the administrative rules are not made for the benefit of the person but for the benefit of the functionaries. So, although both Ove and “the white shirts” concern themselves with following rules, the process and outcome is completely different.
While Ove wants his own authority to be respected, he often does not respect the authority of others in charge because they have a different purpose. The difference in the purpose of each is really what makes this such a beautiful story, if not a fairy tale. In this wonderful novel, everyone is eventually valued for who they are, the things they do, and not the things that are said about them. We discover that underneath Ove’s hard surface is a tenderness that pervades the entire story. He is a man who wants to do the right thing, regardless of the effort involved, regardless of how it interferes with his own needs. He has a “big heart” and always tries to do the right thing!