Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

From the publisher: The bestselling author of A Man Called Ove returns with a dazzling, profound novel about a small town with a big dream—and the price required to make it come true.

In Beartown, the latest from Swedish publishing sensation Fredrik Backman, the residents of a small community, struggling economically, have one bright spot in their lives - the junior hockey team. This puts immense pressure on the teenaged members of that team and the adults around them.

Beartown is a slow-moving novel of great feeling that builds to big moments, then backs away and gets thoughtful. It's about sports, friendship, rape, societal expectations, right vs. wrong, female strength, and community. It features some fascinating, multi-faceted characters that felt like real people.  I loved it.

Beartown was not always easy to read, but I had trouble stepping away from it. The plot isn’t original: Something Happens before the big game that threatens the team’s success and pits the townspeople against one another. I guessed much of what was coming all along the way. The backgrounds of the characters aren’t particularly original – the bad boy whose father killed himself when he was a boy, the recent immigrant and his cleaning woman mother, the hometown hero returned in middle age to work for his old team. But Backman works those standard character descriptions into something More. The strength of the characters and the narrative make up for any deficiencies in plot. This is the kind of book where you get to know the characters so well you find yourself wondering about them long after you've finished the book.

I loved Backman’s first book, A Man Called Ove, but wasn’t too impressed with his third, Britt-Marie Was Here. While I enjoyed Ove more, Beartown is the better book. It really shows how much Backman has matured as a writer. Backman has a very specific writing style, slow, repetitive, and deliberate, and I’m sure it puts some people off. But I felt much of the writing in Beartown was masterful. Beartown reminds me in good ways of J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Both are hard to read, and both showcase well developed characters that you come to care about and shine a spotlight on societal issues. (And Beartown is a lot shorter than The Casual Vacancy!)

I would give Beartown 4.5 stars instead of 5, mostly for the comfortable ending (although the ending satisfied me as a reader). I think this would make a great book discussion title. I recommend it for fans of Backman and of thoughtful fiction featuring developed characters.

Beartown comes out on April 25 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in multiple formats.

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