Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?
Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.
A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year,’ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down” (Booklist, starred review).
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Chapter 1: A Man Called Ove Buys a Computer That Is Not a Computer
Ove is fifty-nine.
He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight. He stands at the counter of a shop where owners of Japanese cars come to purchase white cables. Ove eyes the sales assistant for a long time before shaking a medium-sized white box at him.
“So this is one of those O-Pads, is it?” he demands.
The assistant, a young man with a single-digit body mass index, looks ill at ease. He visibly struggles to control his urge to snatch the box out of Ove’s hands.
“Yes, exactly. An iPad. Do you think you could stop shaking it like that…?”
Ove gives the box a skeptical glance, as if it’s a highly dubious sort of box, a box that rides a scooter and wears tracksuit pants and just called Ove “my friend” before offering to sell him a watch.
“I see. So it’s a computer, yes?”
The sales assistant nods. Then hesitates and quickly shakes his head.
“Yes… or, what I mean is, it’s an iPad. Some people call it a ‘tablet’ and others call it a ‘surfing device.’ There are different ways of looking at it.…”
Ove looks at the sales assistant as if he has just spoken backwards, before shaking the box again.
“But is it good, this thing?”
The assistant nods confusedly. “Yes. Or… How do you mean?”
Ove sighs and starts talking slowly, articulating his words as if the only problem here is his adversary’s impaired hearing.
“Is. It. Goooood? Is it a good computer?”
The assistant scratches his chin.
“I mean… yeah… it’s really good… but it depends what sort of computer you want.”
Ove glares at him.
“I want a computer! A normal bloody computer!”
Silence descends over the two men for a short while. The assistant clears his throat.
“Well… it isn’t really a normal computer. Maybe you’d rather have a…”
The assistant stops and seems to be looking for a word that falls within the bounds of comprehension of the man facing him. Then he clears his throat again and says:
“… a laptop?”
Ove shakes his head wildly and leans menacingly over the counter.
“No, I don’t want a ‘laptop.’ I want a computer.”
The assistant nods pedagogically.
“A laptop is a computer.”
Ove, insulted, glares at him and stabs his forefinger at the counter.
“You think I don’t know that!”
Another silence, as if two gunmen have suddenly realized they have forgotten to bring their pistols. Ove looks at the box for a long time, as though he’s waiting for it to make a confession.
“Where does the keyboard pull out?” he mutters eventually.
The sales assistant rubs his palms against the edge of the counter and shifts his weight nervously from foot to foot, as young men employed in retail outlets often do when they begin to understand that something is going to take considerably more time than they had initially hoped.
“Well, this one doesn’t actually have a keyboard.”
Ove does something with his eyebrows. “Ah, of course,” he splutters. “Because you have to buy it as an ‘extra,’ don’t you?”
“No, what I mean is that the computer doesn’t have a separate keyboard. You control everything from the screen.”
Ove shakes his head in disbelief, as if he’s just witnessed the sales assistant walking around the counter and licking the glass-fronted display cabinet.
“But I have to have a keyboard. You do understand that?”
The young man sighs deeply, as if patiently counting to ten.
“Okay. I understand. In that case I don’t think you should go for this computer. I think you should buy something like a MacBook instead.”
“A McBook?” Ove says, far from convinced. “Is that one of those blessed ‘eReaders’ everyone’s talking about?”
“No. A MacBook is a… it’s a… laptop, with a keyboard.”
“Okay!” Ove hisses. He looks around the shop for a moment. “So are they any good, then?”
The sales assistant looks down at the counter in a way that seems to reveal a fiercely yet barely controlled desire to begin clawing his own face. Then he suddenly brightens, flashing an energetic smile.
“You know what? Let me see if my colleague has finished with his customer, so he can come and give you a demonstration.”
Ove checks his watch and grudgingly agrees, reminding the assistant that some people have better things to do than stand around all day waiting. The assistant gives him a quick nod, then disappears and comes back after a few moments with a colleague. The colleague looks very happy, as people do when they have not been working for a sufficient stretch of time as sales assistants.
“Hi, how can I help you?”
Ove drills his police-flashlight finger into the counter.
“I want a computer!”
The colleague no longer looks quite as happy. He gives the first sales assistant an insinuating glance as if to say he’ll pay him back for this.
In the meantime the first sales assistant mutters, “I can’t take anymore, I’m going for lunch.”
“Lunch,” snorts Ove. “That’s the only thing people care about nowadays.”
“I’m sorry?” says the colleague and turns around.
“Lunch!” He sneers, then tosses the box onto the counter and swiftly walks out.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Man Called Ove includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Ove is getting older. He’s the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People in Ove’s neighborhood call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But behind Ove’s cranky exterior lies a story and a sadness. When an accident-prone young couple with two young daughters moves in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox one November morning, overturning his well-ordered routine, it is the spark in a surprising, enlivening chain of events—featuring unkempt cats, unexpected friendships, arrogant bureaucrats, several trips to the hospital, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. Swept along in the tide, Ove is forced to change and learn to understand his neighbors and the modern times into which he has been grudgingly dragged. But as his neighbors learn more about the reasons behind Ove’s grumpy façade, they must also band together to protect each other and their neighborhood in a struggle that will leave no one, including Ove, unchanged.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How does the opening scene, in which Ove attempts to purchase a computer, succinctly express the main points of Ove’s ongoing battle with the stupidities of the modern world?
2. Ove loves things that have a purpose, that are useful. How does this worldview fail him when he believes himself to be useless? How is he convinced that he can still be useful?
3. As readers, we get to know Ove slowly, with his past only being revealed piece by piece. What surprised you about Ove’s past? Why do you think the author revealed Ove’s past the way that he did?
4. We all know our own grumpy old men. How do Ove’s core values lead him to appear as such a cranky old coot, when he is in fact nothing of the sort? Which of these values do you agree or disagree with?
5. Although Ove has some major “disagreements” with the way the world turned out, there are some undeniable advantages to the modernization he finds so hollow. How do these advantages improve Ove’s life, even if he can’t admit it?
6. Parveneh’s perspective on life, as radically different from Ove’s as it is, eventually succeeds in breaking Ove out of his shell, even if she can’t change his feelings about Saabs. How does her brash, extroverted attitude manage to somehow be both rude and helpful?
7. Ove strives to be “as little unlike his father as possible.” Although this emulation provides much of the strength that helps Ove persevere through a difficult life, it also has some disadvantages. What are some of the ways that Ove grows into a new way of thinking over the course of the book?
8. Ove is a believer in the value of routine—how can following a routine be both comforting and stultifying? How can we balance routine and spontaneity? Should we? Or is there sense in eating sausage and potatoes your whole life?
9. The truism “it takes a village to raise a child” has some resonance with A Man Called Ove. How does the eclectic cast of posers, suits, deadbeats, and teens each help Ove in their own way?
10. Although we all identify with Ove to some extent, especially by the end of the story, we certainly also have our differences with him. Which of the supporting cast (Parveneh, Jimmy, the Lanky One, Anita) did you find yourself identifying with most?
11. What did you make of Ove’s ongoing battle with the bureaucracies that persist in getting in his way? Is Ove’s true fight with the various ruling bodies, or are they stand-ins, scapegoats, for something else?
12. On page 113, after a younger Ove punches Tom, the author reflects: “A time like that comes for all men, when they choose what sort of men they want to be.” Do you agree with this sentiment, especially in this context? How does the book deal with varying ideas of masculinity?
13. On page 246, the author muses that when people don’t share sorrow, it can drive them apart. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
14. What do you think of Ove’s relationship with the mangy cat he adopts? What does the cat allow him to express that he couldn’t otherwise say?
15. On Ove and Sonja’s trip to Spain, Ove spends his time helping the locals and fixing things. How does Ove the “hero” compare and contrast to his behavior in the rest of the book? Is that Ove’s true personality?
16. Ove and Sonja’s love story is one of the most affecting, tender parts of the book. What is the key to their romance? Why do they fit so well together?
17. Saab? Volvo? BMW? Scania?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Grumpy old men like Ove pop up in various forms throughout popular culture. Have a movie night for your group, and screen a film that reminds you of Ove. Perhaps try About Schmidt, As Good as It Gets, Up, or, obviously, Grumpy Old Men. Examine how the characters differ from Ove, or share his grouchy worldview. How did what you watched change the way you thought about the book? Alternatively, screen a movie you think Ove would enjoy, like a Saab commercial.
2. Parveneh and the rest of Ove’s neighbors succeed in breaking Ove out of his shell by encouraging him to reengage with people, and with life. Many of the crotchety oldsters in our lives could use a similar kind of encouragement—reach out to someone you know who could use a little company, either solo or with your group. Discuss your experiences, sharing what you learned from the Ove in your world.
3. Much of the story of Ove’s life remains untold. Imagine a scene from Ove’s life that we didn’t see, and try your hand at writing it out. Short or long, funny or serious, do your best to get into Ove’s head and depict an event that led him to become the lovable pain in the neck that we meet in the book. Share your stories with your group!