When an author achieves success, they sometimes repeat the same formula to capture lightning in a bottle twice. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this as long as the book is still compelling in other ways. This was the case when I read Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman – his third novel. It takes what made A Man Called Ove work and applies to another interesting curmudgeon.
Britt-Marie Was Here is about a socially awkward, fussy busybody woman who has more imagination, bigger aspirations, and a warmer heart than anybody realizes. When she leaves her cheating husband, Britt-Marie finds herself in the town of Borg – a place where everything is closed except for a few places and a road. She becomes the caretaker of the soon-to-be-demolished recreation center. Eventually, she gets to know the various characters in the town like the citizens, miscreants, drunks, and layabouts. Surprisingly, she’s given the task to lead the fairly untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In a town full of misfits, will Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?
For those who have read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, one may recognize Britt-Marie as the naggy woman who loves order and routine in the apartment building Elsa lives in. While the events of Britt-Marie Was Here occur after the ones from the former, the latter is more of a stand alone novel than a sequel.
As I mentioned early, Backman translates the core structure of A Man Called Ove to Britt-Marie Was Here. This includes a character study on a stubborn, possibly OCD older protagonist, who interacts with a colorful cast of characters that help them change for the better as well as their backstories being revealed through stream-of-consciousness. I can understand why he would do this since that framework worked the first time. However, since the follow-up was My Grandmother, which had a different formula, I was under the impression that maybe he would do something distinct from those novels. At the same time, Britt-Marie is a multifaceted character in her own way that I can overlook the retread.
Even though Backman provided a backstory for Britt-Marie in My Grandmother, he dives even deeper in Britt-Marie Was Here. Granted, to an outsider, Britt-Marie is still a nag-bag, but she slowly becomes more open, flexible, and independent as she continues to live in Borg. She even reveals more of her life with how invisible she felt by her parents after her sister died; how ungratefully she was treated by her ex-husband, especially how he never put his shirts in the washer; and how much denial she was in when the affairs were going on. Seeing Britt-Marie grow and realize how grateful the Borg residents are to her throughout the novel are the greatest satisfactions that the book gives because she definitely deserves to become the person she wants to be and the respect she gets. Although there’s not a whole lot of story, Britt-Marie is such a compelling character that I’m willing to look past that.
Additionally, like A Man Called Ove, despite the sadness, Backman still infuses humor to the situation. When Britt-Marie first arrives at the recreation center, she gets hit on the head with a soccer ball (uh, I mean football). Talk about first impressions, eh? Scenes like that one help to keep the lightness of the story.
Joan Walker narrates a Fredrik Backman audiobook once again. She brings an austere, but vulnerable vibe to Britt-Marie. Her foreign characters have vague, but appropriate accents. The volume issue that I mentioned in my review of My Grandmother is not as prevalent, but Walker has a tendency to voice the teens as younger than they should be. This is a disappointment, for she voiced Elsa – the 7-year-old in My Grandmother – perfectly.
All in all, Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman is a good novel by an author who’s repeating a formula that worked for him before. To some readers who’ve read his other novels, it may seem like a disappointment. To others, it’s still satisfying because the titular character is so memorable. I would recommend it to those who love Fredrik Backman and reading stories about characters who realize their full potential. Once someone reads it, they’ll remember Britt-Marie for a very long time.
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