Three years ago, when Atria Books Editorial Director Peter Borland was sent the first 50 pages of a novel translated from the Swedish, he had no idea that what he held in his hands would become a national sensation. The book was by an unknown writer, but the story he told wasn’t another brooding, Scandinavian mystery like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a genre that had been selling like crazy over the past several years.
Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove was, in fact, a ray of sunshine compared to the dark night of those novels—a touchy-feely look at what it means to be human. Filled with humor and pathos, it was about a curmudgeonly and suicidal man in his late fifties who seemed at war with the modern world and his neighbors.
Borland liked the book, liked its sympathetic tone and subtle wit, liked what eventually became a tale of a suffering man who, thanks to those same neighbors, comes out of his shell. The book was charming but not corny. So Borland decided to take it on. Yet he was cautious: The 2014 first U.S. printing of Backman’s novel was only 6,600 copies. And although the book enjoyed solid pre-publication reviews from the trades, it was ignored by major outlets like The New York Times, with sales that didn’t exactly encourage confidence.
Then it caught fire. Atria’s independent bookstore sales reps went out of their way to push the novel. The indie bookstore network started to get the word out, and when Ove came out in paperback in May 2015, a major store in Maine named it their book of the year and began selling copies by the truckload. That helped jump start Ove-mania, and it didn’t hurt that People magazine gave it a rave, saying “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel new sympathy for the curmudgeons in your life.”
Six months after it came out in paperback, A Man Called Ove, which Borland calls “a great word-of-mouth, reader driven success,” hit the bestseller lists. It has remained there for more than 30 weeks, rising as high as #2 in The New York Times paperback rankings, and now boasts more than 650,000 copies in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions.
Success bred more success. Backman’s next book, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, in which a 7-year-old is assigned by her grandmother to deliver a series of letters to people the grandmother has wronged, also started slowly, but is also now firmly ensconced on the bestseller lists, with 240,000 copies in print.
But it is Ove that is the real underground sensation, and with a film version (already a hit throughout Scandinavia and Germany) due out in the States later this month, the book seems to be set for a long run of popularity. To further grease the skids, Sweden announced this week that the film of Ove would be its official selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Jon Platt, owner of Nonesuch Books in South Portland, Maine, has sold 1,700 copies of Ove—a total exceeded only by Harry Potter—and credits the book’s success to the fact that Backman “doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties, and how people are. There are difficult people everywhere, and that’s what he writes about, and people relate to those characters.”
Nancy Usiak of the Book Bin in Northbrook, Illinois, has also had great success with Ove and thinks it works because “he is such an endearing character, even though he is a curmudgeon, and everyone has someone like that in their life.”
Backman, interviewed from Sweden via email, feels pretty much the same way. He claims he really doesn’t know what makes the book so popular, because “most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. But I would hope people would respond to Ove because he’s human. He’s a good person, he’s just not very nice all the time. Most people I know are built that way.”
The audience for the book seems to be all over the map. While Grandmother, which has a strong fairytale element, seems to draw a large teenage audience, the primary Ove readership appears to be Baby Boomers, both male and female, although both Platt and Usiak say every demographic imaginable is buying the book.
“People in their twenties tell me how much they love it,” says Borland. “It’s a way to connect with the older person in your life.”
And there’s this: Some of the reception for the book may have been helped by—and at the same time is a reaction to—the enormous success of the bleak Scandinavian mysteries that have swept the country in the past few years. Authors like Stieg Larsson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Arnaldur Indridason (Jar City), Jo Nesbo (Headhunters), and Karin Fossum (Don’t Look Back) have gained a strong following in the States with their taut, Nordic noirs, opening the door for the acceptance of other Scandinavian writers.
“I think things have changed over the last five years,” says Borland. “Americans are much less averse to fiction in translation. The Tattoo trilogy showed you don’t have to be scared of reading in translation. There is less of a strangeness to it.”
And that must be the case, because booksellers claim the appeal of Backman’s books has little to do with their country of origin. “We didn’t pitch him as a Scandinavian author at all,” says Platt. Adds Usiak: “I don’t think people identify Ove as much as a Swedish character as an everyman character.”
Ed Arentz of Music Box Films, which will be releasing the subtitled version of Ove this month in New York, Los Angeles, and a handful of other cities, agrees that the character has a universal appeal, and sees him in the same vein as the crotchety old men played by Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.
“There is something universal about the angry old man next door who is a pain for no apparent reason,” Arentz says. “But scratch the surface and he has his own emotional history, and he needs a little kindness to break through that barrier. Ove is your neighbor you don’t talk to, but Ove is also us.”