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Britt-Marie's Heartfelt, Age-Old Question: How Should You Live Your Life?

Don't we all want to know?

An abandoned rec hall

I first met Britt-Marie when I read Fredrik Backman's novel, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry. Believe me when I tell you that I thought I would NEVER read a book about that prickly, unyielding woman named Britt-Marie who was a resident of the apartment building where My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry took place.

And yet...

My book club voted to read Britt-Marie Was Here for our April 2023 selection, so I was obligated to read about a character I did not like.

Luckily, first impressions can change. Fredrik Backman is a master at exposing a character's idiosyncracies and experiences. His writing forced me to understand and sympathize with the character - regardless of the fact that I had already formed a negative opinion of Britt-Marie. Somehow, unbelievably, in spite of my previous judgments, Backman made me respect the difficult, demanding woman.

Britt-Marie comes to Borg

Britt-Marie is a sixty-three-year-old woman who has spent her whole life taking care of her husband, Kent. She's a neat freak with an obsessive compulsion to clean everything with baking powder to sanitize her surroundings. She is rude, judgmental, and certain that her way is always right. Britt-Marie is passive-aggressive, making comments like

"It's very courageous of you to wear your hair so short when you have such a large forehead."

No wonder Britt-Marie has never made any friends!

When Britt-Marie discovers her "entrepreneur" husband has been cheating on her, she leaves and has to fend for herself for the first time in her life. She ends up getting a job that pays hardly anything at a recreational center in the economically depressed town of Borg, Sweden.

It's in Borg that Britt-Marie meets a cast of misfit characters who've had very hard lives. There's "Bank," a former renowned soccer player who is now visually impaired.

"Somebody" is the wheelchair-bound, alcoholic manager of the pizzeria, post office, and general store. Motherless children, Sami, Vega, and Omar are kids trying to survive in a town with no resources. Sven is the kind-hearted, divorced policeman who does whatever he can to help the bedraggled townspeople.

Maybe it's because the people that Britt-Marie meets are downtrodden themselves, but they aren't offended by Britt-Marie's behavior. Instead, they "get" her, and for the first time in her life, she begins to fit in.

We learn that even the prickliest character might have a warm heart beating under the surface.

The power of soccer

The whole town of Borg is crazy about soccer. Following the sport gives them hope. Each person is known by which soccer team they support, and the few kids remaining in the town are intent on forming a soccer team and playing in a regional competition. To compete, they are required to have a coach. The only available person is Britt-Marie.

What follows is a story that highlights the power of community, the need to follow dreams, the courage of starting over, and the strange - but oddly satisfying - quirks of humanity.

Let me be honest.

Like Britt-Marie, I have never felt the passion for sports that the rest of the world has. I have never in my life spent an entire afternoon lounging in the living room glued to the television, watching basketball, football, baseball, or soccer.

But my lack of interest in professional sports did not keep me from being pulled into the drama of Borg and its feisty little team of underdogs or from caring about what happens to Vega, the young girl who is able to forget pain while playing soccer.

Backman's wonderful way with words

I have read several Backman books. A Man Called Ove, Anxious People, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, and Britt-Marie Was Here.

Each time I started one of his novels, I thought to myself, "I'm going to hate this book," usually because I didn't like the character or thought the plot would be too depressing. (A Man Called Ove, after all, starts out with a bitter man bent on committing suicide. )

By the time I got a quarter of the way through each of these books, I was hooked.

By the end of each novel, I am touched and changed, and sometimes, even crying.

No doubt about it, Backman's got a way with words, and I'm amazed at how well they translate from his native Swedish to English.

His language, like his characters, is hyperbolic, but always descriptive and often humorous.

When Britt-Marie was offered a plastic cup at the unemployment office, she

"could not have looked more startled than if she'd been offered roadkill."

(Now. Didn't that make you smile and get a vivid picture of Britt-Marie?)

"This is the actual reason Britt-Marie hates traveling. Death. Not even baking soda has any effect on death."

A description of a hairstyle goes like this:

" mainly looks short and spiky, like when someone has spilled orange juice on a shagpile rug."

When a soccer official gestures, it's questionable whether is demonstrating a point, or

"...just demonstrating the approximate size of a badger."

Universal themes:

Britt-Marie Was Here is filled with universal themes that most readers will relate to: children who are lost, neglected, or abandoned; parents who are working triple hard to survive; families who are torn apart by a lack of understanding; economic hardships; and the need to belong - no matter your age or your background.

Most of all, Britt-Marie struggles with how to reconstruct her life after she decides she can no longer accept her husband's infidelity. She works to move forward, wrestling with the question we all ask, how should we live our lives?

Perhaps - as much as I hate to admit it - Britt-Marie hit me a little too close to home. She's almost the same age as I am. She is a meticulous list-maker with a belief that there are some jobs only a pencil can do. She believes wholeheartedly that there is a "right way" to do things.

Hum. While people who know me would probably call me warm and compassionate, I would have to admit that I share some of the same character flaws that Britt-Marie demonstrates and that scared me! Britt-Marie was a good read, but it was my least favorite of the Backman books I've read.

Fredrik Backman's notable career

Backman is only 41 years old, but he's sold more than 12 million books worldwide, translated into 46 languages.

He admits that he's a writer and storyteller at heart and that his success doesn't always seem real to him.

“If these were medieval times, I would be the guy wandering from village to village telling stories for coins...I don’t have much in the way of hobbies. I don’t have a lot of friends. I don’t do a lot of things. I’m with my family, I write, and I read.”

It may be that Backman sees himself as just a family man with the simple need to tell stories, but I think he's selling himself short. He's a man with a phenomenal ability to shine a light on the human condition and make us care about others.

Truly an accomplishment.


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