Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Britt-Marie makes a statment

When we first meet Britt-Marie, she can be a little hard to like.  She comes across as rather uptight and prim, and throws out criticisms disguised as compliments.  Still, she has her reasons for all her personality quirks, which we find out in Britt-Marie Was Here, the latest book from the Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman.

Britt-Marie has recently suffered a great upheaval in her previously well-ordered (if uneventful) life.  Her husband Kent suffered a heart attack and Britt-Marie found out about it when his mistress called to tell her.  Britt-Marie had often suspected something was going on, due to Kent's frequent perfume-scented shirts being discarded on the floor, but she refused to think about it.  Once it's been confirmed, however, she leaves immediately.

Prior to being slapped across the face by reality, Britt-Marie was a stay-at-home wife, looking after Kent and his two children from a previous marriage.  The kids are grown now so Britt-Marie fills her days with cleaning (she has an fanatical devotion to baking soda and a window cleaner called Faxin).  Now she has to consider her options, so she stops in at the local unemployment office.  The counselor she meets there is not overly optimistic about Britt-Marie's employment options.  She has no formal training and hasn't worked since she did a short stint as a waitress before her marriage.  Still, Britt-Marie is not one to take no for an answer, so she makes such a nuisance of herself that she's finally offered a job in Borg.

Borg is a town that has definitely seen better days.  The main employer has closed and everyone who can leave has.  Nearly everyone else has a "For Sale" sign in their yards.  The town council (or rather, the council in the larger town over which has say over the affairs of Borg) has closed the soccer field and is in the process of closing the recreation center.  Britt-Marie is offered the job of being caretaker of the center until it's permanently closed -- expected to be in a few months at most.

Britt-Marie has no other option, so she heads off to Borg.  She soon discovers that the one business in town is operating as a cafe, store, car repair center, and anything else the town needs. It's run by a woman in a wheelchair who's only ever referred to as Somebody.  Somebody is a blunt, no-nonsense sort of person, but she's also friendly to Britt-Marie and fills her in on the goings on in town.  Britt-Marie sets about doing what she does best -- cleaning the recreation center.  She soon notices that all the children in town are obsessed with soccer, a game Britt-Marie knows nothing about.  Still, she washes the uniforms of the "team" and allows the children to watch matches on the TV in the recreation center.

At first she sleeps in the recreation center, but she soon moves in with a seemingly blind woman named Bank (who can miraculously "accidentally" hit people with her stick).  Bank's late father was a legendary soccer coach, but she claims to not be interested in the sport. That is until the children need a registered coach to participate in the local soccer league. Britt-Marie is roped in to be the coach on paper, but as Bank observes Britt-Marie's attempts at training the team, she gradually begins to take over more of the duties.

Britt-Marie also begins something of a flirtation with Sven, the local policeman.  Just as Britt-Marie seems to be settling in to life in Borg, Kent makes a reappearance.  He's recovered from his heart attack and seemingly can't live without Britt-Marie (although he has failed to notice or appreciate her for most of their marriage).  As he attempts to convince Britt-Marie to return home, she is faced with making a decision about her future: return to the life she's always known, continue her new life in Borg, or set out on a completely new adventure.

I enjoyed reading about the prickly Britt-Marie, who never relaxed her grip on her handbag or stopped cleaning for very long.  I didn't like her odd manner of speech, which included putting "Ha" (or "Ha?" if she was asking a question) before every sentence.  Also, Somebody had a strange way of speaking, and I never ascertained if that was just to add to her strangeness, or to imply that perhaps she was also a "foreigner" in Borg?  I also wish the book had ended on a different note, but that's just my own preference for tidy endings.  Overall, this is an enjoyable look at a woman who finally explores new possibilities after 63 years.

Disclaimer:  I received an Advance Reader's Edition of Britt-Marie Was Here from the publisher in exchange for this review

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