Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

In need of what I knew would be a heartwarming story, I picked up Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. Having read A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (in which Britt-Marie makes an appearance), I knew Backman would be able to make me feel, something not all books can do. Like Ove, Britt-Marie is not a new story. In Ove, we get the foreign, “colorful” woman bring life to a grumpy old man; in Britt-Marie, a recently separated woman finds herself (and purpose) in a small town devastated by the recession. While these stories are not exactly original, Backman has a way with writing characters that it doesn’t matter. All his characters are interesting and multidimensional.

britt(Source: Goodreads)

In Borg, the fictional small town in which Britt-Marie finds temporary employment as a caretaker of an abandoned recreation center, we meet the characters who feel love for their town and a hope that things might get better. The town’s love for soccer seems to be what gets them through. Backman writes of orphaned children who are more resilient than anyone their age should be; an older brother caught halfway between being parents to his younger siblings (and, as Britt-Marie points out, puts his cutlery in the correct order and therefore must be a good man) and protecting his criminal best friend; a crippled woman who runs the pizzeria/grocery store/post office; and a cop who loved to paint and make sushi (I imagined him as Louis CK’s character from Parks and Recreations). Britt-Marie gets caught up in the town’s love of soccer and starts understanding how the townspeople see the world (who you support says a lot about you). All the characters are captivating, whether they are funny or tragic.

Britt-Marie’s struggle as she tries to make sense of a world that she never understood and her grief over her sister’s death so long ago makes the reader care for and respect a character who was so annoying in My Grandmother…. Her fear of being found dead days after her death, possibly chewed on my dog/cat/rat, drove her to find a job for the first time in 40 years. Her logic was that if you don’t show up for work one day, someone will know something is wrong. She left behind her cheating and abusive (to be discussed later) husband, but could not let go of the comfort of having a clean home and balcony. Backman’s descriptions of her internal struggle of living by her own, possibly obsessive-compulsive rules, and learning to adapt to a new life can resonate with anyone who has had to be outside their comfort zone for the first time.

The story gave me the warm feelings I was expecting when I picked it up, but there is one aspect that bothered me. Britt-Marie’s husband, Kent, was verbally abusive. Britt-Marie recalls being told that she’s not “socially competent;” he would regularly dismiss her opinions and mock her openly in front of others. As someone who has witnessed verbal abuse and the damage it can do to one’s psyche, I felt that this aspect could have been dealt with better. When he comes to Borg to try to get her back, the others can see — through his actions and his preferred soccer team — that he is a jerk. But no one tells Britt-Marie that his treatment of her is wrong. Throughout the text, Britt-Marie blames herself as well Kent for their marriage falling apart. It is typical for the victim of abuse to blame herself for “deserving” the abuse, but we don’t get a clear cut moment of her realizing that none of it is her fault. While the maybe-not-as-ambiguous-as-it-could-have-been ending implies that Britt-Marie realizes her own worth, I think — in response to such a toxic relationship — a more clear-cut rejection of Kent was necessary.

Despite my annoyance of the treatment of Kent, this was a very enjoyable book. Again, it’s not a new story, but Backman writes in a way that it doesn’t matter. The plot doesn’t need to be very original, because the characters and narrative are. Plus, she gives a rat snickers on a plate and provides it with a napkin. What more does one need in a story?

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

As a fan of WWI novels, I was excited to read The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. I have Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand–have had for 4 years now and haven’t read it yet, story of my life. There are some very positive aspects of this book. I think Simonson, by describing the countryside and country living, captures the idealism of the idyllic summer of 1914, or at least as it has been romanticized since the beginning of the war. An older woman (Mrs. Kent) sunbathing naked in her backyard, garden parties, and pageants all work to capture the peace and tranquility felt by the upper- and upper-middle class in that June and July.

summer
(Source: Goodreads)

Simonson writes some interesting characters. The main character, Beatrice Nash, is newly orphaned and comes to the village  of Rye to be the new Latin teacher. She is stereotypically a New Woman: she rides a bike, she’s more educated than any woman of her class “should” be, she’s independent, and she’s a suffragette. If the story focused solely on her, I think I would have enjoyed the book more. Instead, we get the view points of several characters: Mrs. Kent, who fights to get Beatrice a place at the school; Hugh Grange, her nephew, who is a medical student and goes off to the war as a medic; and Daniel, another nephew, who is an in-closet gay poet and joins the Front Lines when his lover dies in a flying accident. Other characters include Mr. Tillingham, an American author who lives in England (based loosely on Henry James), a couple of Belgian refugees, two “radical” women hinted at being lesbians, and an obnoxious Mayor’s wife. In trying to paint a picture of the village through these viewpoints, Simonson ended up diluting the substance of these characters. We get hints of depth in these characters, particularly with Beatrice and her history, but the pacing of the book (another issue I have) prevented me from getting attached to or feeling anything for the characters.

The pacing was a bit rushed. About 85% of the book was before the war and the last couple of chapters deal with the Front. We are given glimpses of the horrors of the war through Hugh and his surgeries. At the end, we get the romantic ending Simonson was leading us to, but it felt hollow. We do see the growing friendship between Hugh and Beatrice and some moments of attraction, but the lack of depth in both characters–and the knowledge from the beginning that this will happen–wasn’t enough to make me love this book. I know the book is considered “chick-lit”* so that’s not what disappointed me, but it was the lead up to it.

At the end, I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads, 2.5 rounded up because of my weakness for WWI books. From the reviews I’ve read of Major Pettigrew, I’m looking forward to reading that…eventually.

*I hate that anything with romance is considered chick-lit, but that’s a rant for another day.