Book Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Fredrik Backman (2015)

June 26th, 2015 9:45 am by Kelly Garbato

For Children Aged Zero to One Hundred and Twenty-Three

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review on NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including domestic violence and war.)

Miamas is Granny and Elsa’s favorite kingdom, because there storytelling is considered the noblest profession of all. The currency there is imagination; instead of buying something with coins, you buy it with a good story. Libraries aren’t known as libraries but as “banks,” and every fairy tale is worth a fortune. Granny spends millions every night: tales full of dragons and trolls and kings and queens and witches. And shadows. Because all imaginary worlds have to have terrible enemies, and in the Land-of-Almost-Awake the enemies are the shadows, because the shadows want to kill the imagination.

And when the morning light seeps into the hospital room, Elsa wakes up in Granny’s arms. But Granny is still in Miamas.

The mightiest power of death is not that it can make people die, but that it can make the people left behind want to stop living.

Almost-eight-year-old Elsa is what many adults call “smart for her age.” She may only be seven, but Elsa knows a backhanded compliment when she hears one. A precocious kid, Elsa isn’t terribly popular, with children or adults. And most certainly not among shopkeepers, whose grammatically incorrect signage she doesn’t hesitate to correct with her handy, ever-present felt-tipped pen: her all-time favorite gift from her font-obsessed father.

Elsa’s best friend – her only friend, in point o’ facts – is her seventy-seven-year-old grandmother. Luckily, Granny lives in Elsa’s apartment building – right next door! People say that Granny’s “crazy,” and that may be true … but only to an extent. Mostly Granny doesn’t give a flying fuck what others think of her. It kind of comes with the territory: Granny was a medical student, and then an accomplished doctor (a surgeon, no less), before these fields had opened up to women. Heck, during Granny’s first few years on this earth, it was even illegal for Swedish women to vote!

So that’s one part of Granny’s “madness” – the radical notion that women are people and can do the same things as their male peers. Even if that involves traveling the globe, visiting the sites of natural disasters and man-made catastrophes while everyone else flees, rescuing people and rebuilding lives the best way she knows how.

But part of Granny’s weirdness is an act: one put on for Elsa’s benefit. Like that time she broke into the zoo in order to prove to Elsa that some monkeys sleep standing up. (Spoiler alert: they do not.) Okay, so maybe the whole incident ended in Granny’s arrest. After a fair amount of poop-throwing, that is. But it took Elsa’s mind off the bully who tore her Gryffindor scarf earlier that day in school, didn’t it?

Granny is an honest-to-goodness superhero: but, as Elsa darned well knows, even superheroes have their flaws.

When, after brief hospital stay, Granny loses her battle with the cancer raging through her body, Elsa is left painfully, desolately alone. But not for long: in her death, Granny tasked Elsa with delivering a series of letters to those she left behind. Each one contains an apology for the recipient – and a clue for Elsa. For this is a treasure hunt, and at the end Elsa will gain both a better understanding of Granny, in all her imperfect, human glory – and a whole legion of new friends and protectors.

This book utterly destroyed me. By story’s end, and for at least an hour after I finished, I was reduced to a blubbering, snot-flinging mess. Even now, I can’t think of certain passages without bringing tears to my eyes and a quiver to my chin.

Here are just a few of the things I loved about My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry:

  • Fredrik Backman’s writing, which is charming.

    I’ll admit, it took a little while to fully sell me on his style. Initially, the writing felt a little too cutesy: over the top; forced, even. And yet, much to my surprise, I quickly found myself getting sucked in. Absorbed and assimilated. Enchanted, even. What at first feels like a simple story slowly grows and morphs into a complex, nuanced tale about good and evil, and the fuzzy boundaries twixt the two; the complicated ties that bind family, whether biological or adopted; and the power possessed by ordinary people who dare to dream.

  • The fairy tales, which intersect with the plot in unexpected and lovely ways.

    One of the greatest joys Elsa and Granny shared were fairy tales. Shortly after Elsa’s parents got divorced, Elsa started spending the night at Granny’s flat – more accurately, in the wardrobe at Granny’s flat, which mysteriously grew larger with Elsa, so that she always fit just right – where she’d regale her beloved granddaughter with tales of the Land-of-Almost-Awake, and its six kingdoms: Miamas, Mirevas, Miploris, Mimovas, Miaudacas, and Mibatalos. (Go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait.) Lands with cloud animals, golden princes, brave knights (male or female; girls can do anything that boys can do, dontchaknow), enphants, and storage facilities for your sorrows. A world in which stories are the preferred form of currency, and wurses (almost) never die.

    I didn’t immediately take to these detours into the Land-ofAlmost-Awake. But as the story progressed, and I saw how Granny’s reality influenced the fantasy – and vice versa – my understanding and love of them grew in leaps and bounds.

    As Elsa delivers Granny’s letters, she’s amazed (and more than a little annoyed) to see characters from her beloved fairy tales up close, in the flesh. There’s Wolfheart, the fierce warrior who defeated the shadows – those killers of imagination – in the War-Without-End. The Princess of Miploris, who was unintentionally responsible for the banishment of the wurses from the kingdom – and the two golden princes who later fell in love with her and competed for her attentions. And of course the Shadow, because every fairy tale has a dragon.

    Before her treasure hunt is done, Elsa will be forced to accept that Granny wasn’t hers alone; but, by the same token, Granny’s friends are Elsa’s friends too – in more ways than one.

  • The repetition of key details and phrases.

    To reiterate the first two points: I wasn’t super-keen on this technique at first…and then I absolutely loved it. Some passages are like a fist to the gut, and when revisited become a one-two knockout punch.

  • This is a story for readers of all ages.

    While Backman deals with some rather weighty issues – divorce, infidelity, bullying, sacrifice, women’s rights, the trauma of war, domestic violence, disability, survivor’s guilt, parental neglect, and grief and loss, to name just a few – he does so gently and with great nuance. This is a book that adults can share with the younger readers in their lives.

    (But please, make sure they know never to give wurses – i.e., DOGS – chocolate or caffeine. Ditto: cinnamon buns and cookies which, while probably not fatal, don’t really make for a nutritionally complete diet, either.)

  • Elsa is a vegetarian!

    Better still, this little factoid isn’t just incidental, a haphazard thread dropped into the story never to be picked up again. Rather, Elsa’s (ethical) vegetarianism is revisited on multiple occasions; to wit:

    On the smell of new vs. old leather: “Elsa likes both smells, though she prefers living animals to dead ones that have been made into car seats.”

    On interpreters, imaginary creatures from the Land-of-Almost-Awake who are a goat-chocolate cookie hybrid: “Interpreters are extremely gifted linguistically, as well as excellent to grill on the barbeque. At least they were until Elsa became a vegetarian, after which Granny was not allowed to mention them anymore.”

    On fast food joints: “…she goes across even though she has firm moral objections to hamburger chains, as every almost-eight-year-old should. But even almost-eight-year-olds can’t eat their principles, so she begrudgingly buys ice cream for the wurse, a hamburger for The Monster, and a veggie burger for herself.”

  • Bonus points: Elsa’s also an environmentalist. It was she who was responsible for Granny’s campaign of terror against the free newspaper company.
  • All the geeky goodness.

    Elsa loves to read, is a member of several fandoms, and considers comic books “quality literature.” Love.

  • The celebration of difference.

    Elsa and Granny aren’t the only “different” characters that populate this book. Most notably, there’s the unnamed “boy with a syndrome” (many characters are given descriptive titles as opposed to proper names, so don’t take it as a measure of his importance, or lack thereof): Elsa’s neighbor, one year younger than she, who can’t speak but loves to dance. When he starts school and shows up to the costume party dressed as a princess – thus attracting the ire of every schoolyard bully within a five-mile radius – Elsa comes to his defense by dressing up as a Spider-Man Princess.

    Additionally, Wolfheart seems to suffer from PTSD and/or OCD; the woman in the black skirt struggles with alcoholism and depression; and even Britt-Marie’s unpleasant behavior has a root cause that should inspire empathy in everyone but the shadows among us.

    Also to this point: Elsa’s infuriating headmaster, who at least partially blames Elsa for making herself a target of bullying (e.g., for failing to fit in and get along; “People who have never been hunted always seem to think there’s a reason for it.”). It’s hard not to want to throw a globe through his monitor, okay.

  • Set in Sweden, the cultural differences are mostly limited to language (moppet, flat; bloody is a legit curse word?). But. There was one exchange between Elsa and the green-eyed policewoman that simply blew me away. To paraphrase: Elsa asks the woman if she intends to kill the bad man who’s been stalking certain residents of her apartment building, to which the woman says “I hope not.” When asked why not, the policewoman responds:

    “Because it’s not my job to kill.”
    “What is your job, then?”
    “To protect.”
    “Him or us?”
    “Both.”

    I don’t imagine this exchange would go over too well in the U.S. Most likely Backman would be met with outraged and offended missives from the heads of police unions and professional ex-cop commentators (e.g. Pat Lynch, Harry Houck). Needless to say, I did a fist pump.

  • As an atheist, I also quite love Backman’s take on death and the afterlife, which shows Granny sitting on a bench in Miamas, smoking a cigarette while she waits for Elsa (and her wurse) to join her.

    Elsa was born on the same day a tsunami killed thousands – Granny’s final job before she retired to become a granny – and, when Halfie finally shows his face, another character passes on as well. There’s a wonderful passage about how one death clears the way for another life to enter this world. I for serious think I’m going to incorporate elements from My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry into my own personal not-a-religion (which draws heavily from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Octavia Butlers’ Parables duology).

    On that note, I really hope Elsa’s family adopts another wurse.

  • 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary.

    Recommended for: Children, wizards, wurses, and storytellers (etc.), ages 0 to 123; fans of Harry Potter, Spider-Man, and The X-Men; parents who still read to their kids; big brothers and (especially) sisters (in the literal, figurative, or capital letter sense).

    (This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

     

    Comments (May contain spoilers!)

    Diversity: In Elsa’s building, there lives “the boy with a syndrome” who doesn’t talk but loves to dance. When he begins school, he’s naturally a target for bullies; and, when he shows up to a costume party dressed as a princess, Elsa rushes to his defense by donning a Princess Spider-Man costume. There’s also Wolfheart, who was a peacekeeper in an unnamed war and seems to suffer from PTSD and/or OCD; the woman in the black skirt, a psychotherapist who’s battling alcoholism and depression after the death of her husband and two sons; and the boy with a syndrome’s mum, whose husband beat her and her son. She’s now living in the same building as her in-laws, who helped her escape from their son.

    And there’s Elsa, Granny, and Mum, all exceptional women in their own right (see my review for more on the feminist elements of the story). Last but not least, there’s an insinuation at the 11th hour that Granny may have been bisexual. (“She was the love of many men’s lives. Women as well, actually.”) Either way, she took many lovers. (“If your granny had been a man of her generation rather than a woman, she would have been called a ‘playboy.'”)

    Animal-friendly elements: Yes! Elsa is a vegetarian! See my review for more.

     

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    5 Responses to “Book Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Fredrik Backman (2015)”

    1. Azaelia Says:

      Googled reviews after finishing this gem, and found yours. :)

      I agree with most of what you said. The dog eating chocolate, for instance! Although our old dog actually ate a lot of chocolate once and didn’t get sick, so it’s not always a bad idea. But it made me cringe, to be sure.

      As far as how Americans would take the police quote, as an American myself I wasn’t offended, and don’t think most would be. I loved it.

      The headmaster was terrible, and yet unfortunately that response is chillingly common. It never happened to me, but I’ve had friends who dealt with similar comments. I was very thankful that this book addressed such idiocy.

    2. Gale Taylor Says:

      Great review, I agree with everything you said!

      Loved the fact that you went through each of the characters. I have been listening to the book and sometimes forgot who was who, so now I’m happy I did get it all straight.

    3. Brynn Herbert Says:

      Can someone please explain the history of the wurse to me? I still don’t understand where it came from and how it’s connected to Granny. Was it her dog and she kept it in another apartment? How old is it? How was Britt-Marie responsible for banishing all of the wurses?

    4. Cora Says:

      At one point, i think Alf talked about how he, Kent & Britt-Marie grew up in that house, & when they were young, Granny (med student) won a dog in a poker game. He said they wanted to play with it, but it was sleeping & nipped at Britt-Marie, whose parents demanded Granny get rid of it.
      I really liked this book & read it a 2nd time…missed this the 1st time.

    5. Dagmara Says:

      An excellent review. I read the book twice in a week’s time, i.e. listened to the Audio in German and then downloaded the Kindle in English. (Appreciated the writing style in the German translation a bit more, or maybe the reader, Heikko Deutschman, did such a good job presenting it; wanted to highlight some of the great life “wisdoms” in the Kindle version, and share it with friends and family.)
      I agree with Azaelia that the answer the police gave was excellent, especially in the present circumstances in America where too many police officers shoot first and check later.
      And unfortunately the attitude of the headmaster about “fitting in” is all too common in way too many classrooms, and it has happened to me.
      Having taught Elementary School children from 1st through 6th grade for 32 years i,f there is anything I did have a problem with in this story it’s Elsa’s age. Yes, she is very bright and precocious. But 7, almost 8 is a little young for all the insights she exhibits. Her factual knowledge is possibly credible given that she reads a lot (including Wikipedia) and googles the Internet looking up words she doesn’t know. But her understanding of adult relationships and some of the questions she asks when delivering the letters, requires life experience, and that comes with age. On the other hand, the author needed her to be still young enough to enjoy the fantasy world of fairylands, and the brattiness of her behavior towards some of the adults, including her parents.
      However this does not distract enough from the charm of the story (too much).
      My next book will be “Britt-Marie was here”. I expect it to be just as enjoyable as this one was. I wonder if Backman is thinking of expanding on some of the other characters in books to come.

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