At the end of a long day on a mission trip in Africa, while all the rest of us thankfully collapsed into our beds, one of my colleagues couldn’t wait to get out the book he was reading. As my eyes closed heavy with sleep I could hear his peals of laughter at what he was reading. I remember thinking, “that book must be worth it,” and it is!
“A Man Called Ove” is a novel by Fredrik Backman which takes place in Sweden. The very first sentence of the book tells us that Ove (a Swede) is fifty-nine years old and drives a Saab. As the book goes on, you will learn that a Saab is the only kind of car Ove will own. Ove judges everyone by the car they drive (do you?) As you delve deeper into the world of Ove, you will find this is just the beginning of the many principles (some might even say non-negotiable rules), Ove lives by.
The book takes place in a three-week window of Ove’s life, and within that window the author masterfully, in a very simple, direct writing style fills in the back story of Ove’s life that has brought him to these life-changing moments.
Ove must face the life that was and the life that is. A world that has changed in ways Ove does not agree with or want. A world that is full of new technology and neighbors that no longer look or act like Ove. A world full of friends who no longer are or can be who they once were. It is the principles that Ove doggedly lives by that are at various times frustrating, infuriating, maddening, insanely funny (which will make you laugh out loud), and in the end will make you cry (get the tissues handy).
Those very principles that pull us into Ove’s life often cause Ove and those around him frustration and heartache. The principles that create lifelong feuds are the same principles which help Ove face some of the greatest losses life can throw at us. When Ove cannot stand living anymore, it is his principles that force him back into life; a life full of people Ove would never have willingly gotten involved with—and yet, it is Ove’s principles once again that help create lasting bonds between them.
For example, one of the principles Ove learns early in life to live by is, “Men are what they are because of what they do. Not what they say.” It is this principle that has forced Ove to agree to teach a pregnant Iranian woman neighbor to drive when he really does not want to. Ove reassures her that despite her misgivings she will have no trouble learning to drive a manual transmission (because that’s a real car) rather than the automatic transmission she wants to learn on, because she is “not a complete twit!” From Ove, she takes it as a compliment and by the end of the afternoon learns to drive.
There is a reason why “A Man Called Ove” was a New York Times bestseller. In a world where people seem more divided than ever by the “principles” they live by, it is a book whose message sneaks up on you as you begin to consider not only the principles you live by, but why others hold onto the principles they do.
Ove helps us take a look at ourselves, who we are and how we live. What is it that we are afraid to face? What is it that is changing faster than we want? Who is it that is not who we thought they were, good or bad? What is it in our lives that helps us navigate life with all of its ups and downs? What are the principles that serve us well, and what are the ones it is time to let go of? Are we willing to let go of the life that was and move into the possibilities of the life that is or could be? What new principles await us, and are we open to who is teaching us?
For those we disagree most with in life, what are the principles, the rules, the stories they live by and why? How many people in your life would you be honored if they told you, “you are not a complete twit?” Welcome to the world of Ove!
Rev. Dr. Deborah J. Winters is associate professor of Old Testament, Palmer Theological Seminary, Eastern University.