8 Heartfelt Life Lessons from Fredrik Backman's Novel, Anxious People


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How one book experience affects another


I fell in love with Fredrik Backman’s earlier book, A Man Called Ove, but it was definitely not love at first sight.


At first, I was offended by Ove’s rude behavior, his surly nature, his honed and hurtful insults. But the skill of the author, Fredrik Backman, made me fall in love with Ove — once his backstory was revealed. It became one of those books that stuck with me, that I think about it occasionally, reminding myself that until we know a little bit about a person’s life, we shouldn’t judge their behavior.


How a Man Called Ove changes from bitter to lovable

Ove is a difficult man, but like so many of us, in spite of our flaws, there is goodness in him, and readers see how that goodness affects the lives of others.


Fredrik Backman’s newest novel, Anxious People, has a similar theme, only this time, it’s how one person’s action affects the lives of others. When a desperate parent decides to rob a bank to get just enough money for rent, events are set in motion that will forever change the lives of several people.


My experience of reading Anxious People was similar to reading A Man Called Ove. At first, I thought I was going to hate the book. It was absurd. It was bizarre. People were talking crazy in police interviews. (As I read, I was thinking of my frustration with studying Waiting for Godot in college. It felt like I was stuck in a routine of “Who’s on first?”)


Can you love a book about idiots?


One of the first sentences of Anxious People declares,

“This is a book about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.”

Could I love a book about idiots?


As with my experience of reading A Man Called Ove, I started out not liking Anxious People, but I was determined to give it a fair shake.

“I’m nothing if not persistent, and I rarely stop reading a book without giving it a chance to prove itself. That decision was one of the best literary decisions I made.”

Backman gradually drew me in, weaving threads of detail and story into a fine tapestry of literary art. I came to love the book.


Eight Heartfelt Life Lessons That Slay You With Their Honesty


In Anxious People, this strange and wonderful book, I found an intriguing plot with flawed and very human characters and dozens of honest observations about life, including eight heartfelt lessons that slay me with their honesty.


The truth hurts — in a good way.


1) “Do you know what the worst thing about being a parent is? That you’re always judged by your worst moments.”


So true. No matter how many wonderful things I tried to do for my girls, what they remember are the times I screwed up. All those good things I tried to do, teach them, care for them, support them, love them — are lost in a haze of memory that swirls around my mistakes.

I send a silent apology to my own mother for the times I focused on what I perceived to be her foibles, instead of the things she did for me that really mattered.


2) “…the people we argue with hardest of all are not the ones who are completely different from us, but the ones who are almost no different at all.”


If you know of a father-son combo or a mother-daughter duo who fight all the time, you might feel the truth of Backman’s statement. Sometimes, we don’t even know why we fight so much, but it’s probably because we see the worst of ourselves in others.


3) “You can’t live with the ones who are only beautiful…but the funny ones, oh, they last a lifetime!”


We hear it all the time, but since physical appearance is both obvious and emphasized, we sometimes forget that lasting relationships aren’t built on beauty.

This statement has a corollary that my daddy used to quote:

“Beauty is only skin-deep, ugliness to the bone. Beauty fades away, but ugliness holds its own.”

Both sayings emphasize the fact that beauty doesn’t last. What lasts — according to one character in Anxious People — is humor. (My dad would say that ugliness, lasts, too.)


4) “But it had been a long day, they had all heard one another’s stories, and that made it harder to dislike one another.”


It’s hard to dislike someone when you know something about their life. Knowing a person’s “backstory” makes you more sympathetic. When I read Backman’s first book, A Man Called Ove, he was disagreeable old man, but as I began to understand him, he became loveable. The same principle holds true in real life. The more you know about people, the easier it is to appreciate them.


5) “Have you ever held a three-year-old by the hand on the way home from pre-school?…You’re never more important than you are then.”


We were driving across a cornfield arced over by a double rainbow. My five-year-old daughter said to me, “Mom! Make that rainbow stay!” She believed I could do anything…protector, caretaker, omnipotent parent. (Needless to say, that viewpoint didn’t last long!) But I felt to my core the statement in Anxious People that reminded me of how important a parent is to a child.


6) “Addicts are addicted to their drugs, and their families are addicted to hope.”


If you’ve ever had a relationship with an addict, you understand the piercing pain of the never ending cycle of addiction, rehab, promises to change, hope that the future will be different, only to have the pattern repeat again. In one comment, Backman nails this brutally honest life lesson.


7) “It’s such an odd thing, the way you can know someone so perfectly through what they read…”


I am a bookshelf voyeur, getting pleasure from knowing people by learning what they read. It’s a special kind of intimacy to get into the heads and hearts of others just by viewing the books in their library. In Anxious People, a character has an affair-of-the-mind with a man because he, too, loves books.


I get it. I once fell in love with a poet because he played with words and bantered books.

Book talk is a powerful aphrodisiac.


8) “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.”


All people are Anxious People. Anxious, stressed, uncertain. Few of us have confidence in every situation or absolute faith in every relationship, but Anxious People remind us that we have one thing in common. No matter how confused or lost we are, whatever we do affects someone else. We’re all tied together, each person’s action touching another, looping us together in the absurd and bizarre book of life.




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