Book Review for “My Grandmother Sends her Regrets and Apologises (aka “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry”), by Fredrik Backman.
Anyone who has been reading my reviews will know that my favorite book of 2014 was Backman’s, “A Man Called Ove.” This Swedish author took the world by storm with his poignant story of a man who has given up, and the people who keep him going. I was lucky enough to get that novel as an ARC, but when this one showed up on NetGalley, the publishers rejected my request. Undaunted, we paid good money to buy this book, and it’s an investment we will treasure for years to come. In fact, Backman’s second novel immediately became heavy competition for Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread” for the #1 spot on my 2015 list.
If you’ve read Ove, you’ll know that Backman knows how to tug at your heartstrings, as well as how to develop a character that is fully out of the ordinary. In his second novel, Backman takes us into the precocious mind of the almost eight-year-old Elsa, and her relationship with her grandmother, who seems to be certifiably insane, while dying from cancer. Of course, things aren’t as they seem, and these two females have a slew of people to contend with as well as the rest of the world. You see, Elsa is the type of nerdy girl that kids in school are always picking on. Elsa’s mother, Ulrika, is a high-powered hospital executive, divorced from Elsa’s father and now pregnant with a new baby with her second husband. Not long after Elsa was born, granny decided to retire from her career to help take care of her, and became Elsa’s best, and only friend. Of course, Ulrika appreciates this, but she’s upset that her mother suddenly abandoned her career for Elsa, because she did the exact opposite when Ulrika was a child, running off across the globe to save the lives of strangers instead of taking care of her own daughter. Now that she’s dying, she’s not going to be there for Elsa much longer.
There are actually two parts to this book. First, there’s the fantasy/fairytale world that Elsa’s grandmother makes up – the Land-of-Almost-Asleep, which is actually several lands, all connected, and filled with princes, princesses, heroes, wild beasts, strange creatures, villains, magic, battles, destruction, love, disappointment and even a few happily-ever-after endings. Then, there’s the world that they really live in, which includes the apartment building complex and its conglomeration of neighbors, and their dysfunctional relationships with the grandmother and with each other. These two worlds slowly come together with the “quest” that granny gives Elsa to carry out for her – to send her regards and apologies to the people she wronged throughout her life.
What makes this book so magical has nothing at all to do with the magic in the stories that granny tells Elsa. Rather, this novel delights us because through it, granny guides Elsa’s moral compass using stories that anyone can understand. Not the least of these the lesson that we need to try to be understanding of people who are different, and be open enough to see through their differences to discover their “superpowers.” Because, you see, everyone has some kind of a superpower, and that’s something we can admire. More importantly, granny doesn’t discourage Elsa in questioning any of the parts of granny’s fairytales that she sees as being illogical or unreasonable. Granny’s main lesson for Elsa is that she needs to observe, listen, and then come to her own conclusions regarding the best way to act and react to the things and people around her. Of course, Granny also teaches Elsa that none of us is perfect, and that’s why she has Elsa apologize to all the people Granny believed she wronged. That, in itself, shows Elsa a weakness on Granny’s part, which also further proves her point.
If there is anything that doesn’t sit completely right in this book, it is how Elsa and Granny feed “the werst” – the very large dog living in their building – chocolate. I’ve always heard that chocolate is poisonous to dogs, so I decided to look it up. What I found is that yes, it certainly isn’t good for them, but it might not kill them either. Since “the werst” is a very large dog, it is possible that the amounts they give him aren’t large enough to be fatal. Then again, this could be a misguided translation, and what they give it is actually a well-known Swedish treat that doesn’t actually have chocolate in it. Either way, although it did bother me a touch, it certainly didn’t ruin the story for me.
Most importantly, in this novel, Backman doubled (if not more) the charm he displayed in his telling of the story of Ove. There isn’t a page where you won’t feel one kind of emotion or another, in some degree, making you smile, chuckle, guffaw or try to suppress that lump in your throat. Furthermore (and once again), I dare you to finish reading this without using up many tissues in the process. It is just that beautiful, that heartwarming, and that wonderful. Read it, please, because I can’t recommend it more highly, and couldn’t give it less than a full five stars out of five.
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