I first heard of the Swedish author Fredrik Backman when Audible had his first novel, “A Man Called Ove”, on a Daily Deal. It was such a charm of a novel that I eagerly snapped up every other book he’d written that had been translated into English. Backman has a knack of fleshing out characters, giving them nuance with turns of phrase that make you laugh out loud or stop in your tracks because that’s absolutely 100% how you feel.
“Britt-Marie was Here” spins off from Backman’s previous novel, “My Grandmother Asked me to Tell you She’s Sorry”. While I read both books, Britt-Marie was here stands sturdily on its own two feet.
About the Book
From the best-selling author of the “charming debut” (People) A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, a heartwarming and hilarious story of a reluctant outsider who transforms a tiny village and a woman who finds love and second chances in the unlikeliest of places.
Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. She eats dinner at precisely the right time and starts her day at six in the morning because only lunatics wake up later than that. And she is not passive-aggressive. Not in the least. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention.
But at 63, Britt-Marie has had enough. She finally walks out on her loveless 40-year marriage and finds a job in the only place she can: Borg, a small, derelict town devastated by the financial crisis. For the fastidious Britt-Marie, this new world of noisy children, muddy floors, and a roommate who is a rat (literally) is a hard adjustment.
As for the citizens of Borg, with everything that they know crumbling around them, the only thing that they have left to hold on to is something Britt-Marie absolutely loathes: their love of soccer. When the village’s youth team becomes desperate for a coach, 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?
Zany and full of heart, Britt-Marie Was Here is a novel about love and second chances and about the unexpected friendships we make that teach us who we really are and the things we are capable of doing.
It Takes a Village
This book is not about soccer (football, I know, but I’m Canadian, okay?). Yes, soccer is played, talked about, argued over, disdained and loved. But this book is not about soccer as much as it is about Borg, the charming, economically depressed town where (to paraphrase one character) you don’t have the luxury to choose your best friend, because even if he’s a criminal he’s the one who helped carry your brother on his back to escape your abusive father. No one is as they seem – in all the right ways. The community comes together to support the soccer team, not just because it’s soccer (though everyone but Britt-marie loves football), but because it’s all about supporting Borg… and don’t you dare mention that team from “town.”
More than One Disabled Character
There’s much disability representation in this book. It’s clear that Britt-Marie lives with OCD – compulsive list-taking, cleaning, etc. When I started reading this book, I got incredibly frustrated with the frequent repetitions and rationalizations, until I took a step back and realized that Backman was getting inside Britt-marie’s head – things had to be done a certain way, because there’s no other way to do them.
Other characters use wheelchairs or are blind, and are in various stages on the journey to disability-acceptance. I grew frustrated with the fact that we never know the wheelchair user’s name (“Somebody”), and yet I wonder if it stems from Britt-marie’s thought process of first impressions or memories continuing to colour their interactions.
Borg, overall, seems to be accessible for “Somebody” to move in her wheelchair. She runs the pizzeria/post office/hospital/whatever, doing what needs doing to help keep the town going. It’s clear she has a massive drinking problem, but whether that’s disability or economically related, I couldn’t say. She’s plucky and resourceful and very comfortable with who she is, and as a character (though I never knew her name) I adored her.
Bank: “I’m not BLIND… I’m Visually Impaired”
Bank is not a major player in Britt-Marie’s story, but she plays a crucial role. She is losing her vision as an adult, and based on her overall grouchy demeanor, she does not appear to have come to a place of acceptance. Bank goes around town with a walking stick that she pokes or hits people with at various convenient opportunities, and totes around a little dog (though very clearly stating that it’s not a guide dog, it’s just a dog). Her home is filthy, and Britt-Marie suspects it’s because she can’t see it, but Bank cooks for herself and travels throughout the small town with a walking cane – not a white cane – because of a bad leg.
Bank played soccer as a youth and was really really good, and – vision or not – when she gets a chance to be an official coach of the Borg team for the upcoming indoor cup, she throws her history into the faces of officials that believe the team is useless. She doesn’t listen to anyone who thinks she can’t do something because she can’t see (though in Borg that’s very few people), but quietly and grumpily and with pluck just goes out and does them.
The reader in me finds her character fascinating and nuanced. The blind person in me, however, is extremely conflicted by Backman’s choices for her. Britt-marie points out to Bank where all the former soccer pictures were hung on her walls while thinking that she keeps a dirty house because of course she can’t see it. And I cringed at Bank’s “accidental” pokes and swats with her stick – in front of a policeman, no less.
I love the author’s way of turning individuals’ quirks into strengths, of cracking open the shells of people who annoyed me with their habits or attitudes. But everyone has wisdom to share if you just look for it. With a few hiccups along the way, Britt-Marie was here shows just how much we all can impact each other by simply being there.
Loved Ove. Great review here. Just downloaded Britt-Marie and very eagger to read it now. Keep these book reviews coming, blindbeader!
Glad I could help! Lots of people expected a similar book to Ove, comparing Britt-Marie unfavorably, but they aren’t alike at all, so expecting two characters to be similar because they’re similar age and set in their ways really isn’t a fair comparison. Would LOVE to hear your impressions 🙂
Just finished Britt-Marie Was Here.! I wasn’t sure about it for the first 50 pages or so, it was so, so, so, so repetitive. Did I really want to spend ten more hours reading about how to organize a cutlery drawer?
Answer: yes, I did! It soon became obvious that the repetition was there for a reason, helped us get into Britt-Marie’s head. By the time I was 8 or 9 hours in I was so comfortable with Britt-Marie that I didn’t want her to leave.
Am guessing you read it in Braille? I listened to the audio version, and the use of “Somebody” caught me off-guard again and again in a good way. I have long yearned for books of fiction with people who have physical disabilities in background roles rather than as the heroic main character and am noticing more and more being published these days. Britt-Marie Was Here is a new favorite of mine. I wonder now if Bachman went out of his way to start sentences with Somebody’s name rather than include her name in the middle of a sentence. Over and over again I’d hear “Somebody cleaned the room already” or “Somebody said it was okay” or Somebody had shut the door” and I fell for it every time. Kept waiting for the next sentence to explain who exactly it was who did those things, and then I’d remember. Oh. Somebody! The woman who runs the pizzeria.
Wondering if the author did that on purpose to drum into reader’s heads how some people who use wheelchairs or have a disability feel they are nameless?
All to say, a good read and I’m sorry it’s over. I want more Britt-Marie! thanks for the recommendation, blindbeader.
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I never considered Backman’s use of “Somebody” as a way to infer the invisibility of disability. I may need to adjust my thinking on it…
Confession: I also thought that perhaps he couldn’t come up with a good first name for her!