Anxious People by Fredrick Backman (Translated by Neil Smith)

Anxious People is another one of those books where I was late to the party. I kept hearing about the book and it was a finalist for best fiction book of the year by Goodreads. Finally, after reading a description, and reading a few glowing reviews, I put myself on the hold list at the library. Then I had to wait months before I got the book because of it’s popularity. The book is described as “A poignant, charming novel about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.”

“Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix up their own marriage. There’s a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.”

I took a while to write this review because honestly, I’m still not sure how I feel about Anxious People (Amazon) (AbeBooks). I almost gave up early on because I found every single character annoying. Seriously. Then I realized that Backman was trying to make this a humorous book, so I just went with it and hoped I’d find something to laugh about. And that’s the nature of the book: you either loved it or hated it, and I still can’t decide which one it is. The fact that Backman could evoke such strong emotion from me and all these idiots I was reading about shows true skill as a writer, so I have to give him props for that.

If I suspend my disbelief in reality, Anxious People is a fun fantasy, with lots of quirky characters in unbelievable situations. I have this thing about anxiety. I am, by nature, an anxious person, but you wouldn’t know it when interacting with me. I’ve learned to mask that anxiety and deal with it in a variety of ways, so maybe I’m not that anxious of a person after all. But reading about all these “idiots” (the author’s words, not mine) made me anxious. And therein lies the problem with the book for me. I want to read a book to escape, not get me all wound up. And the characters in the book are all wound up and it just oozes off the pages.

The story is told from multiple points of view, as well as transcripts of police interviews, which are so over-the-top that one must suspend their disbelief in order for this book to work. And once I got into the groove of the book, it did work for me after all. I did appreciate how Backman took all these loose strings of seemingly unconnected stories of these people thrown together by a bank robbery turned into a hostage situation and drew them together at the end. And at the end, I found a protagonist I could like. Several, in fact. That takes true writing skill.

The best part of the book for me had to be the constant references to Stockholm as a way to show how other people live, and they’re not looked upon kindly. Sort of a rural versus urban competition. Wherever people live, there are assumptions made of people who live in other locales, right or wrong. I see it here in a city of 105,000 people, constant references to the people in the suburban villages and cities that surround us as elitist, that the people in rural areas aren’t as smart as city folk, country bumpkins if you will. All are prejudices of one kind or another, but Backman is making fun of how people pigeon-hole each other based upon where they live.

I think I’ve decided that I liked this book quite a lot after all, after a slow start. I’ve not read Backman before but now will be sure to look for his other works because a writer that evokes such strong emotions, whatever that may be, needs to be embraced.

This is the 6th library book I’ve read this year as part of my Library Love Reading Challenge.

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