Britt-Marie Was Here, Fredrik Backman
Who is Britt-Marie? She is the antithesis of the liberated woman. She is an old-fashioned, naïve, very tidy woman with demanding scruples and an excessive love of lists that she feels compelled to follow to the letter. For her entire life she has been dependent on her husband, Kent, and before that, on her family, a family she could not please or unite after they experienced the tragic death of her sister, the favorite child. She is a woman with little sense of humor, with little knowledge of the outside world, and with few social skills. She is an expert in taking care of a household, husband, and children, not necessarily her own, and also in entertaining her husband’s business clients. Otherwise, she is ill-prepared for the real world outside her home. Who is Britt-Marie? She is a woman betrayed. Her husband, Kent, had a heart attack which led to her discovery of his mistress. She is distraught, humiliated and shocked. For the first time in her life, she makes an independent move which leads to her finally finding her true self.
When we meet her, she is in an unemployment office harassing the employee who cannot seem to provide her with an immediate position. Britt-Marie is called a nag-bag by many and she lives up to the reputation. After all, on the list, one of many she has made, she has written “find employment”, and she ticks off the items on it as they get completed. So, as far as she is concerned, the list must be completed. Although she has never worked outside the home, and is told she has no work experience, she insists that working at home was a job, a concept that should make many a woman smile. Exasperated, the unemployment office employee offers her a three week position in a one-horse town that is dying due to the financial crisis that has hit the world, only it has hit harder in the town of Borg. She is appointed as the caretaker of their recreation center. She immediately returns to the hostel she is staying at, packs her things and heads straight to Borg to begin her new life where she immediately sets about cleaning up the place, for she is nothing if not organized, nothing if not a creature of habit, but first, out of habit, she demands certain cleaning products. She wants Faxin, and only Faxin will do. It is the product she has always used to clean her windows. She wants baking soda which she always uses, as well, to clean everything, clothes, furniture, mattresses, and refrigerators!
Kent has not built up her self-esteem, so she is unaware of any talents she might have other than maintaining a home for him and his children. Now, she uses these skills in the town, cleaning, straightening and sprucing things up. She washes soccer uniforms, windows, floors, and hangs pictures. She adopts the recreation center’s resident rat, for he has a right to live also. She feeds and also engages in one-sided conversations with the rat, because, of course, the rat cannot respond. The conversations with the rat are indicative of Britt-Marie’s loneliness and aloneness. She realizes she has had few friends other than those business people she met through Kent.
Britt Marie is an expert at spouting left-handed compliments which she believes are not insulting, just truthful. She has been desensitized to the feelings of others because she has had little interaction with others outside her home. Although she often says things in very impolitic ways, sometimes those she addresses are actually confused by her statements and then so amused by her innocence that they are not insulted. For instance, she might tell someone he was brave to wear such an unpleasant looking tie, or she might inquire why a child is not in school in a most cryptic, indirect way, especially when one of the children, a “fixer” of sorts, offers to get her the items she needs, although they are not sold in the store. They seem to have “fallen off a truck” somewhere. The child, Omar, can get most anything, and he provides her with the supplies. She meets his sister Vega, a foul-mouthed, dirty-looking girl who works in the local store that doubles as post office, pizzeria, auto mechanic, etc. Sami is their 20 year old, older brother. He hangs out with someone called Psycho, who indeed, is psycho!
These children begin a symbiotic association with her, and they are soon joined by other children and townsfolk like Bank who is not blind, but sight impaired, Sean, the Sheriff, and Somebody, a woman who rolls around her restaurant in her wheelchair barking orders. They form relationships that enhance not only their lives, but Britt-Marie’s and the rest of the townspeople’s as well. When the children approach Britt-Marie to be their soccer coach because she is there only choice since they need a coach to compete for the cup, she agrees, although she knows nothing about soccer. She learns more about life in that capacity than she had during the years she was married. She shares the town’s happy moments and suffers with them when tragedy strikes. She comes of age in Borg, at the “young” age of 63.
As Britt-Marie begins to be appreciated by the people she meets. She thinks back to her childhood dreams and dwells on some of her memories, like the plans she and her sister made to travel to Paris; she also remembers not being able to please her parents and realizes that Kent has never really praised her. When she begins to have a positive influence on the town as she demands and then expects proper behavior, obedience to rules and cleanliness, she finds she is respected, liked and then even praised. She begins to believe in herself just a little bit more, but she always returns to her thoughts of the status quo and wonders if it wouldn’t be better if she returned to the comfort of the life she once knew.
The reader will laugh and cry with her. The reader will wonder, will she go to Paris or will she forgive her husband and go home to him. Will she stay in Borg? Will the Sheriff who is smitten with her and the gathering groups of children remain a part of her life? Now that she has learned how to make her own decisions, her own independent choices, what will she choose? Soccer brought life back into Britt-Marie’s world. Which superstitious beliefs about the professional teams will guide her?
Britt-Marie wanted a job so that someone would notice if she died; she wanted someone to notice if she disappeared or if she didn’t show up. At the end, is that her overriding ambition any longer or has she found a new one? I think Britt-Marie chose to think about going on living rather than planning for the possibility of her death. I think she realized that she could make friends and would be missed, not only by them, but perhaps, also by Kent. Borg gave her a new lease on life and brought me hours of reading joy.
If you fell in love with Ove in Backman’s “A Man Called Ove”, because of his basic humanity in spite of his hard edges, you will adore Britt-Marie in spite of her rigidity. Her inner softness and tenderness will shine through because Backman’s skill in describing life at its core, is astounding. His dry wit will mitigate the more distressing events in the book so that although it is not a laugh out loud story, it will surely often offer a chuckle and titter for the reader.