A long time ago, I read a little book called A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. It was a wonderful novel that has influenced a subsection of the lit subgenre that I’d like to call “curmudgeon novels.” Since it was his debut novel, Backman had to follow up with something that was just as good. In 2013, a year after A Man Called Ove was published, he released a book called My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. It’s a good follow up in the most Backman way possible.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is about Elsa (2013 was a great year for characters with that name) – a 7-year-old girl who is different. Her best and only friend is Granny – her brash and crazy grandmother. She tells Elsa stories in the Land of Almost-Awake and in the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal. When Granny dies and leaves behind letters apologizing to the people she’s wronged, it’s up to Elsa to deliver those notes. They lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, vicious dogs, and totally ordinary old people, but also to the truth about fairytales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.
I’ve seen book titles, in which I was so fascinated by them that I wanted to immediately read them. Kill the Farm Boy is an example of this. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is different. Not only is it an exciting title, but I also wanted to know the story behind it. With Kill the Farm Boy, I only wanted to read it simply because it was a cool title. My Grandmother invites readers to know what had happened with the grandmother and why she needed to apologize. No other fictional book has done that to me in recent memory.
This is my second Fredrik Backman novel, and I’ve noticed something about his books. They tend to be eccentric on the outside and dark on the inside. Both this one and A Man Called Ove contain stubborn old people as they deal with life in their own idiosyncratic ways. However, as the stories progress, their backstories are revealed piecemeal, and the dark elements become more prevalent. In the latter, Ove tries to kill himself on multiple occasions. In the former, Elsa gets physically bullied by her peers. She even receives notes telling her to kill herself. I know that Elsa is not an old lady, yet I wanted to point out how intense it can get. Luckily, that kind of intensity is mainly in the first third. The rest of the novel focuses on Elsa delivering the apology letters and finding out how every person living in her grandmother’s apartment complex knew the multidimensional old lady and how they are represented in the fairy tales she used to tell her.
Speaking of the supporting characters, readers get their backstories piecemeal, but in more realistic terms than The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper. In that book, all but one were all too willing to reveal how they knew Miriam – Arthur’s wife. In My Grandmother, a lot of the tenants were initially reluctant because of how painful their pasts were. At the same time, in the former, Miriam was a friendly person who was well liked by 99% of the people she knew. In the latter, people had polarizing opinions on Granny due to her eccentric behavior.
I like how Backman writes this novel. He definitely gets into the mind of a 7-year-old who has divorced parents and is about to have a half sibling. The best part is how he expresses that mindset. For example, children her age tend to believe everything that people tell them. This is no different from Elsa, who believes everything that Granny says, yet since she’s very intelligent, she has some doubts. In addition, she refuses to get along with her mom’s boyfriend George and her dad’s girlfriend Lizette even though both are friendly because she doesn’t want to get hurt.
The only thing I might complain about is when the book gets into the fairy tales that Granny tells Elsa, it goes in deep and tends to drag. If one is reading the physical book, they might find this annoying as they want to get back to the main story. However, I listened to the audiobook, and I simply tuned out those sections because I knew that their importance would be revealed in simplified forms at later points.
Joan Walker – an English actress – narrates the audiobook. She has voiced other books from Backman like Britt-Marie Was Here and even A Man Called Ove (I’m going to take note of that for an audiobook versus special). For this novel, she does a good job giving vocal distinctions for the female characters. Granny sounds like what one would expect for a brash old lady holding a cigarette in her hands. Walker portrays Elsa as a smart allick, but she can also make the character quiet like a mouse. The second part reminded me of how Eric Idle voiced Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Also like Idle, Walker has some volume issues. She could be very quiet in one second, and then raise her voice in the next. This was especially difficult to get through because Walker tends to deliver important lines to the story quietly. I went “What did she say?” and had to adjust the volume multiple times because of that.
Overall, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman is a good follow up to A Man Called Ove. The novel is about as Backman-esque as one expects after reading one of his books. The characters are interesting and rootable (as long as one tolerates smart allicks). And above all, the title is simply enticing. I would recommend this to those who are reading other Backman novels, to those who like reading books about the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, and to those who enjoy off-the-wall characters. Following up a great novel can be tough, but when done right, it’s worth the read.
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