The Ambassador of Good Fiction: ‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman

October 7, 2020 Updated: October 8, 2020

Reading “Anxious People” reminded me why I became such a huge admirer of Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman. He can be laugh-out-loud funny, an incredibly insightful observer, a wise philosopher, and a masterful manipulator of emotions, sometimes even all on the very same page. He is without a doubt one of today’s finest novelists.

“Anxious People” is an exceptionally entertaining read. Some say it’s even better than his phenomenal debut novel “A Man Called Ove.” It’s not. But it is one of the best fun reads of the year.

ANXIOUS PEOPLE cover image
This book tells how not to rob a bank.

The plot is just a bit reminiscent of a Donald E. Westlake comic caper. A good and decent person whose marriage has suddenly crumbled is desperate for enough money to pay rent and fears losing custody of the couple’s two little girls unless the money is found soon. As a result, this very ordinary person becomes the world’s most reluctant bank robber, carrying a gun the robber thinks is fake but isn’t.

The world’s most reluctant bank robber tries to rob exactly one month’s rent—nothing more—and intends to return the money later with interest. But the bank robber unwittingly targets a cashless bank—a cashless bank!—where behind the counter stands an incredibly stupid young girl who first asks, ”Are you some kind of a joke, or what?” then mocks the money demand for being so ridiculously low, and asks, “Are you really going to try to rob a cashless bank, or what? Are you, like, totally stupid?” She then announces she’s calling the police.

So the bank robber, who, of course, couldn’t rob a cashless bank, flees to a nearby apartment building and bursts into a room full of people who are at an open-house viewing of an apartment for sale. And suddenly the world’s most reluctant bank robber becomes the world’s most reluctant hostage-taker.

The bank robber, who by accident has become a hostage taker, now must cope with what the bank robber/hostage-taker comes to view as the world’s worst hostages. Also dealing with all of them are two of the small city’s police officers, a father and son team—never a good idea in police work—the older one intent on doing the right thing, the younger one intent on doing things right.

It’s a zany cast of characters Backman has assembled. Besides the bank robber/hostage-taker and father and son cops, these anxious people include the real estate agent and seven prospective buyers who are held hostage and, in the process, learn a lot about one another and about themselves, which is the underlying point of the story.

It’s humorous, but some of the funny is a bit too much, such as when during police interviews everyone speaks like a character performing in a Neil Simon play.

There are a lot of surprising twists and turns, but too many coincidences.

And there’s mystery: No demand is made for release of the hostages other than that the police set off a first-rate fireworks display that can be viewed from the apartment. Even more strange is that upon safe release of the hostages, the police storm the apartment only to find no trace of the bank robber/hostage-taker.

The plot is imaginative, and the screwball characters become more sympathetic as the story unfolds. But what’s most appealing about “Anxious People” is what always makes a Fredrik Backman novel worth reading: the wonderful writing and the brilliant insights into the things in life that truly matter most.

Not that I’d tout everything he’s written. I cringed when his publisher marketed his “Deal of a Lifetime” as “a modern Christmas classic” when, truth is, it had next to nothing to do with the Christmas holiday, and besides, it has a glaring hole in its premise.

Other Works by Backman

If you’re new to Fredrik Backman and “Anxious People” leaves you wanting more, his best is “A Man Called Ove,” concerning a 59-year-old curmudgeon whom the reader comes to love, not because he changes but because he becomes more sympathetic as the novel unfolds. It’s heartbreaking yet humorous.

Delightfully quirky characters and whimsical humor also gratified readers of his next two novels. “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” is a charming tale about the relationship between an odd and precocious 7-year-old girl and her 77-year-old grandmother who bequeaths her the task of embarking on an offbeat apology tour. “Britt-Marie Was Here” is a moving story about an obsessive-compulsive, socially inept 63-year-old busybody long convinced she will leave life with hardly anyone knowing she was here.

His masterpiece work “Beartown” is on its surface about small-town people hoping that their junior hockey team might bring them national glory and with it economic revival. Suddenly, a terrible incident changes everything, not only shattering the dream but also tearing the community apart. This superb, serious work about right versus wrong, fear versus courage, and the importance and limits of friendship and loyalty reveals Backman to be a novelist of astonishing depth and broad range.

It had a sequel, “Us Against You,” and Backman is insisting on turning it into a trilogy. My wish would have been for just one “Beartown,” preferably followed by other serious works of its quality. And also more like his earlier ones with delightfully quirky characters and whimsical humor that also featured exceptional character development.

A college dropout who just turned 39, Fredrik Backman was working as a forklift driver at a food warehouse when publication of “A Man Called Ove” catapulted him to worldwide fame. His remarkable gift for mixing just the right blend of wisdom and humor in portraying the human experience has made him one of the world’s most beloved and most popular novelists—and one of its finest.

The “Ambassador of Good Fiction” series recommends to our readers a work of fiction, giving information not just about the novel but also what makes its author worth checking out—and, when possible, interviewing that author.

A writer and favorably reviewed novelist himself, Fred J. Eckert has been a member of Congress and twice served under President Ronald Reagan as a United States ambassador.