Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

A small community in Connecticut. Three couples of middle age all have their respective struggles: Margot has never gotten over the loss of her baby girl, their three sons can only make up so much for this; while she is grieving, her husband Richard is having extramarital affairs to forget about his homely negative mood. Gunter and Rachel are new to the small place, the Swede has serious problems of adaptation and can only wonder about the small town Americans, whereas his wife Rachel tries to be supermom and get her children into the prestigious Petra school. Virginia’s daughter already attends this institution but the mother is starting to wonder if the place is actually a good choice while her husband Trip has developed an end of time fear and wants his family to be prepared for the worst case which is sure to come soon. While the parents are occupied with themselves, their kids are educated in a quite unique institution with very special educational views.

Bethany Ball paints a rather gloomy picture of three middle-aged families. The love at first sight and life on cloud number nine is only a faint memory, if they are still interested in their partner, this is more out of convenience than out of love. Their children are strange creatures with which they have rather complicated relationships and whom they do not seem to understand at all. Life does not have much to offer outside the big city and so, consequently, the turn into “The Pessimists”.

It is upper class white suburbia life that the novel ridicules: the invite the “right” people to dibber parties even though they hate barbecuing and do not even like their guests. The women are reduced to being housewives even though they had successful careers in the city, yet, these are not compatible with life in a small town. They are not even aware of how privileged they are, they feel depressed and deceived by life, seemingly none of them got what they expected from life. Apart from being miserable, they pretend that all is best in their life to keep up the picture they want the others to see. Only brief glances behind the facade allow the truth to show.

This rather dark atmosphere is broken up repeatedly by episodes of Petra school. It is the absolutely exaggerated picture of an alternative institution which actually does not take education too seriously, but is highly occupied with spiritual well-being and a lifestyle nobody can ever stick too. The information mails they send out to the parents are simply hilarious and made me laugh out loud more than once – however, I don’t doubt that such places might actually exist.

A satire of small town America which is funny on the one hand but quite serious regarding the message behind the superficial storyline.

Fredrik Backman – Anxious People

Fredrik Backman – Anxious People

A story about a bank robbery. Or about an apartment viewing. Or about a bridge. Or about a hostage drama. Or about a father and his son. Or about a mother and her daughters. Or people who make a poor decision. Anxious people who are not sure if they will see tomorrow and if so, what tomorrow will bring. After the bank robbery went totally wrong, the bank robber storms into an apartment viewing and takes all the prospective buyers hostage. Unsure of what to do since this wasn’t planned at all, the situation gradually gets out of control since the captives are prepared to do a lot, but not being kept hostage, at least not by a failed robber. On the opposite side, two policemen, father and son, have to cope with the situation which becomes highly complicated when they realise that the robber has obviously vanished into thin air after the captives have been freed. Some of them must have helped the robber to escape, but who and, more importantly: why?

I have totally adored all novels written by Fredrik Backman and also his latest did not disappoint: a brilliantly constructed plot with highly lovable characters and – as expected – a wonderful narrator who puts the story into the right perspective. Backman is one of those authors who creates those characters at the fringe, who are a bit different, maybe even strange, who do not easily socialise but who, if you take a closer look, are adorable and at the core, just good people.

It is all but easy to tell a story full of human drama with a light-hearted tone which makes you laugh out loud and keeps your spirit high even though the characters’ lives are actually a sequence of disappointments and failures. Their ways cross several times, not too unexpectedly in a small Swedish town, and with each encounter, if they are aware of it or not, trigger a slight change. The exceptional circumstances provide them with a chance of opening up, of telling their story and secrets and realising that they are actually not alone with the ghosts who haunt them.

Fredrik Backman surely is an outstanding writer with not only an eye for the fascinating detail which is easily overlooked but, first and foremost, an advocate for the seeming odd characters who deserve a closer inspection because they actually have great stories to tell.

Fredrik Backman – The Scandal/Beartown

fredrik-backman-the-scandal
Fredrik Backman – The Scandal

A small town in northern Sweden. There is not much that connects the people in Beartown, it is too small and too insignificant to be known beyond the town’s limits. Yet, when the junior hockey boys win the semi-finals, for the first time in history, something big can happen. Beartown has always been a hockey town, if you don’t play, you are nobody. If you are not connected somehow with the local club, you are an outsider. Peter is the manager of the club and of course his wife Kira and their kids Maya and Leo also have to live for the club. Coach David has raised a generation of winners and with this junior team, they can finally pick the fruits of many years of hard work. But one evening will change everything, old friendships and loyalties will be tested, values will be questioned. The town will never be the same when the scandal comes to light.

I have read novels by Fredrik Backman before and really like his style and his eye for the detail in creating singular characters. However, “The Scandal” is so much more than interesting characters at a crucial moment of their life, it is the portrait of a community, the study of an average small town and the way these places work and how the individual is just a small cog in the machine. Admittedly, I also wouldn’t ever have imagined that a novel about ice hockey could be interesting, but it is.

First of all, the structure of the novel is full of suspense. You get to know the small town, all the important people, logically connected to the club, yet, the narrator warns you quite early that something is about to change everything, that things are not going to stay the way they are.

We have the kids, the boys playing hockey, friendships based on doing sports together, on being in a team, on standing in for one another. We have the girls who only play a minor role in the public opinion since they do not play hockey, there is no girls team, they are just a reward for the successful player, an accessory to decorate oneself with. We have the functional and the dysfunctional families, the rich and the poor, the local heroes and prestigious and the outsiders whom everybody ignores. Beartown is just like any small town anywhere in the world.

When the scandal finally becomes known, people have to take sides and have to admit to their values: is winning with the club more important than the individual’s fate? Whose side do you take, whom do you believe? What are you willing to give up and risk for a hockey team? Many are ready to forget long-time friendships, to forget their ideals, to place success before justice. It is impressive how Backman traces the development of the mood in town, how the machine finally starts and how opinions are formed.

Actually, it is not a novel about hockey. It is a novel about you and me and the question what is important in life and what you are willing to do to defend your principles or to be successful.