& Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

MGAMTTYSS by Fredrik Backman. Fiction. Publisher: Atria Books.

MGAMTTYSS by Fredrik Backman. Fiction. Publisher: Atria Books.

The Book Itself: Now that is a title…but doesn’t it look so whimsical, so pleasant?? A little girl, a cute doggy wearing a scarf. Come on.

My Review: Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy, standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-men-who-want-to-talk-about-Jesus-crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.

When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s letters lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and totally ordinary old crones, but also to the truth about fairytales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.

When I was in college, I took a yearlong Creative Writing seminar where we had to focus on a theme in our writing or the stories we read and write a term paper about it at the end of the year. I wrote about the imaginative world that young characters built for themselves in order to distract from problems in their present reality.

Too bad MGAMTTYSS wasn’t written back then. Because I totally could have used it.

Notice that I have to abbreviate that thing. When people asked me what I was reading, I usually responded with something like this: “It’s called My Grandmother Told You She Said…wait, no. It’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Say That…that’s not it either.” I don’t know why it was so hard for me to remember the title. But it’s kind of a long title! Especially for an author whose last book was simply titled A Man Called Ove.

I’d heard good things about Ove. And MGAMTTYSS is completely endearing, so Ove might have to go on my to-read list.

Elsa lives with her mother and stepfather in a big apartment building with perhaps the most motley assortment of characters you’ve ever seen. This includes her grandmother, who has fed Elsa bedtime stories set in the Land of Almost-Awake for as long as Elsa can remember. It is an elaborate world, with seven different kingdoms and wars and magical creatures not seen anywhere else.

And then Elsa’s beloved grandmother dies, and Elsa begins to see the parallels between her grandmother’s real, tumultuous life and the stories she told to put Elsa to bed.

This story does a great job with complex characters. Elsa’s grandmother is only alive for the first chapter or so in the book, but her background is slowly filled in with detail provided by the people she has Elsa deliver letters to. Her story is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, and I found her to be totally believable. I could see an eccentric old lady, jaded from memories in her past and haunted by mistakes she made with her own daughter, clinging to a granddaughter and trying it make it so that her young life is filled with as much positivity and fun as possible. But she also knows that Elsa must grow up, and by slowly revealing the characters from the Land of Almost-Awake in the real world, she hopes to ease her into that.

The book also helped me appreciate a character I initially loathed. I despised her for most of the book. Britt-Marie is the building busy-body who is so passive aggressive, it hurts your teeth, you’re gritting them so hard. I could hear her voice, all simpering and sweet, insulting Elsa’s mother for working when she has a young child and a baby on the way. I hated her along with the other building residents, whose monthly meetings were run by this dictator in a floral jacket.

And then you find out more about her backstory. And she has such a moment of strength toward the end of the story that I really found myself rooting for her. She’s still a rude busybody, but at least she was somewhat redeemable.

Elsa herself can be a little inconsistent. She is a seven (“almost eight,” she likes to point out) year old child, but sometimes acts like an adult or teenager in her knowledge or understanding. In one scene, she mistakes a therapist for a terrorist, even pronouncing it with a childlike lisp (“terrapist”). In a later scene, she talks about a therapist in her past. So…if she had one in her past, how come she didn’t remember what one was? Her voice wobbles in maturity. She understands too much, and then she seems to understand nothing at all about how the world works. I think child narrators are often difficult because you want to write them like adults, but you still have to maintain a childlike wonder and simplistic understanding of the setting. I think that was a little shaky at some parts in this book.

The book did lag for me a little. I tended to put it down for a couple of days between chapters. But the characters were vivid – the Hagrid-like giant “Wolfheart,” the “wurse,” or giant dog who becomes Elsa’s friend and confidante (and who she feeds a frightening number of chocolates to). It is a lovely, complex book which has a great side-world to its story in the Land of Almost-Awake.

My Grade: B

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