Anxious People


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I started this book on audio and was so surprised at how many chapters I had heard on such a short drive.  However, I was surprised that by Ch. 20 I was only 17% done.  It was a little discouraging.
I loved the majority of Chapter 1 - who can't relate to almost all of it!  I also read some of the book on eBook.
We've read three other Fredrik Backman books (A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here); this one feels quite different because there is a lot of 2nd Person Point of View.

A character is blindsided by their spouse having an affair with their boss - they lose their home, spouse and job all at once.  They try desperately to find an affordable place to live but are unable to manage it and fear losing rights to their children - so they try to rob a bank for exactly the amount they need for rent.  But things go haywire, they don't get any money and wind up in an apartment that is being shown for purchase.  There are many prospective buyers in the apartment so it turns into an unintended hostage situation.

The story was progressing well until around Ch. 48 and then it took such a divergent turn that I got really disgusted with the whole concept and had almost no interest in finishing the book.   I might have been aware of a nagging feeling that I was missing a little something - but the idea that I overlooked such a major discrepancy was just too insulting.  An author should not make their reader feel so entirely foolish.  A trick or a fun twist is acceptable - but, in a book that repeatedly says it's a book about idiots, I still didn't expect to feel like an idiot.  I thought the book must be near done, though, and I thought I could muscle through...and then I saw on my Kindle that I was only 66% done - it was torture.  I did have time and went back and skimmed from the beginning and can see where I let my assumptions get the best of me...but still, I felt no less offended.  Even with the confirmation that some of the characters were conspiring to mislead the police and therefore the reader is also misled - I felt no better.

Also, the book is a little too jumpy.  I've become accustomed to stories not being told in a linear fashion.  It is very common now to have a novel that takes place on two different timelines (past and present, for example).  But this novel has at least three different tracks that don't occur in any relevant time frame.  For example, we read about the hostages ordering pizza.  Then, slightly more in the future, the two detectives are back at the apartment investigating the crime scene.  Then, all of a sudden, they are in the precinct interviewing witnesses.  Then you read about one of the hostages having a session with her therapist, unrelated to the hostage experience.

In the end, though, at least in my book, this novel redeems itself, if only for the fact that it makes a statement against suicide.  It appears Backman lost someone to suicide (ref. Author's Thanks, ePg. 339, loc. 4563, "J."), as have I, and therefore I stand firmly on the side of anyone or anything which makes an attempt to encourage others to live through dark moments and find the light on the other side. Nadia works at a camp for children who've lost someone to suicide. (Ch. 73, ePg. 333, loc. 4537)  I would not, however, call this a book about suicide.  Even though the theme of jumping from the bridge runs throughout the book, it didn't touch any nerves in me like other books with suicidal situations sometimes do.  It really wasn't even until the end, until I read about Nadia working at the camp, and then the author's thanks to "J", that I shed a tear.

Backman maintains until the end that, "The truth is that this was a story about many different things, but most of all about idiots.  Because we're doing the best we can, .... trying to be grown-up and love each other and understand how the hell you're supposed to insert USB leads.  We're looking for something to cling on to, something to fight for, something to look forward to. ...  We have all of this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine." (Ch. 74, ePg. 335, loc. 4547)  To which I say - it's NOT a book about idiots, it's a book about how one person can impact others and how important each life is.  

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex:  1

Religion:  4

Gruesome:  0

Suspense: 1

Morality: 3

Traditional:  2

Sex - maybe some vague references to marital intimacy

Religion - There is a lot of detail beginning in Ch. 46 about a woman who has been dead the entire book, but was a priest "who liked to drink and tell dirty jokes".  She admitted "she and God didn't agree on everything."  She was not able to get her son to believe in God even though he prayed as she was dying - because she died then that just turned him more off of God because he couldn't reconcile a God who would let a good person die.  Jim and the bank robber have a discussion about Jesus saying to take care of the less fortunate. (Ch. 65, ePg. 293, loc. 3992)  "...all we know about God is that we don't know anything.  So they only thing a mom who was a priest demanded of her family was simple: that we do our best.  We plant an apple tree today, even if we know the world is going to be destroyed tomorrow. ...We save those we can." (Ch. 72, ePg. 332, loc. 4512)

Gruesome - the only blood is "stage blood"

Suspense - it was more intrigue than suspense, just wanting to find out what happened and how they fooled you too

Morality - just a bunch of averagely nice people, even the bank robber didn't want to commit a crime

Traditional - An off-pages sister/daughter is an addict who frequently begs money from her brother/father.  Two of the central characters are a lesbian couple.

I enjoyed the juxtapositions in Ch. 13 comparing kids now and then, especially regarding technology.
I also enjoyed the anecdote about Jim's wife / Jack's mom who would stick her finger in your mouth if you yawned near her.  (Ch. 63, ePg. 285, loc. 3897)  It touched me because me grandmother used to do that.

There are so many fabulous little gems in this novel.  
  • "The truth of course is that if people really were as happy as they look on the Internet, they wouldn't spend so much damn time on the Internet, because no one who's having a really good day spends half of it taking pictures of themselves.  Anyone can nurture a myth about their life if they have enough manure, so if the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, that's probably because it's full of shit." (Ch. 20, ePg. 57)
  • Regarding the economic system, Zara says, "We made it too strong.  We forgot how greedy we are.  ... A mortgage used to be something you were expected to repay.  But now that every other middle-income family has a mortgage for an amount they couldn't save up in their lifetimes, then the bank isn't lending money anymore.  It's offering financing.  And then homes are no longer homes.  They're investments. ...Because no matter how much money anyone earns, they still lie awake at the end of the month worrying about money.  Everyone looks at what their neighbors have and wonders, 'How can they afford that?' because everyone is living beyond their means  so not even really rich people ever feel really rich, because in the end the only thing you can buy is a more expensive version of something you've already got.  With borrowed money." (Ch 51, ePg. 220, loc. 3004 - 3011)
  • Estelle commented on the shift in parenting across generations by explaining that parents used to tell the doctor that their child was wetting the bed and ask what was wrong with the kid.  Now they say the kid is wetting the bed and ask what is wrong with themselves. (Ch. 56, ePg. 252)
  • "Sometimes we don't need distance, just barriers." (ePg. 319, loc. 4353)
There is a sort of sub-plot about a man who jumped off a bridge 10 years ago.  It is interesting to see how that event touched the lives of so many who intersect in this novel.  But it also got a little overwhelming trying to keep all those characters straight, relationally, along with the current day - especially because some of them are the same just aged 10 years.  Of course there is:
  • the jumper
  • Jack who tried to save the jumper and felt such a calling to help people that he became a police officer and is now investigating the hostage-taking
  • Zara who is a hostage and works at a bank had received a letter from the jumper and she carries it with her but can't bring herself to read it. (ref. ePg. 98)  Zara also saw Nadia almost jump and Jack save her
  • Nadia who went to school with the children of the jumper and tried to copycat the following week then becomes the therapist that Zara sees
  • Estelle just missed seeing the jumper, and felt a bit guilty for it (Ch. 56, ePg. 253, loc. 3469)
Discussion Questions

Jim wanted to be a writer.  Then he wanted Jack to be a writer.  Do parents want their kids to follow in their footsteps or do parents want to walk in the kids' footsteps while the kids pursue the parents' dreams? (Ch. 13)

Do siblings grow up different despite the fact that they grew up together or because of it? (Ch. 13)

Those of us who give children their names are the least willing to use them. (Ch. 20)  "We give those we love nicknames, because love requires a word that belongs to us alone." (ePg. 54)  Do you agree?  Do you use nicknames for your children?

"On Friday you were married and had a job.  On Monday you're homeless and unemployed.  What do you do then?" (ePg. 56)

"Addicts are good at lying, but never as good as their children." (ePg. 59)  Debate, based on your experience or opinion, who is the better liar, addicts or their children?

The psychologist said, "I think that almost all of us have a need to tell ourselves that we're helping to make the world better.  Or at least that we're not making it worse.  That we're on the right side.  That even if...I don't know...that maybe even our very worst actions serve some sort of higher purpose.  Because practically everyone distinguishes between good and bad, so if we breach our own moral code, we have to come up with an excuse for ourselves."  (Ch. 26, ePg. 96, loc. 1326) Do you agree?  How strong is your need to improve the world?

"Parenthood can lead to a sequence of years when the children's feelings suck all the oxygen out of a family, and that can be so emotionally intense that some adults go for years without having an opportunity to tell anyone about their own feelings, and if you don't get a chance for long enough, sometimes you simply forget how to do it." (Ch. 36, ePg. 150)   How did having children change your communication?  Your marriage?  What strategies did you employ to maintain your sense of self or to re-coup your space and your marriage?

Anna-Lena thought married life was like climbing a tree - you cope with all life's ups and downs but you hardly ever see your spouse because you are "parents and teammates, first and foremost, and being married slips down the list of priorities."  She figured as long as you were climbing the same tree you'd eventually wind up on the same branch and get to sit down together and enjoy the view. (Ch. 66, ePg. 301, loc. 4098)  Can you identify with Anna-Lena's feelings?

Jack felt like, since his sister was seven years older, he didn't grow up with a big sister but with an idol. (Ch. 46)  Do you have much-older siblings?  Were they more of a sibling or an idol for you?

Estelle had a few secrets!  Did you guess any of them?  Estelle said she usually hid wine in her closet.  (Ch. 54, ePg. 243)  Where do you hide wine or other treats?

Jim says, "...you end up marrying the one you don't understand.  Then you spend the rest of your life trying."  (Ch. 55, ePg. 247, loc. 3389)  Do you agree?  Did you understand your spouse when you married them?

Did you realize the real estate agent was not in the apartment during the showing?  (Ch. 58, ePg. 266, loc. 3662)

Jim hoped his wife would be proud of his actions in regard to the bank robber. (Ch. 66, ePg. 310)  Do you think she would have been proud?

Estelle will give Julia a book of poetry and Julia will give Estelle a "guidebook about Stockholm".  (Ch. 68, ePg. 314)  Which Stockholm were they referring to?

Nadia, the therapist, thinks that co-workers and supervisors would give someone more sympathy if they show up to work hungover than if they were suffering from anxiety. (Ch. 69, ePg. 319)  Who would you be more sympathetic towards?

"They say that a person's personality is the sum of their experiences.  But that isn't true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we'd never be able to put up with ourselves.  We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we're more than the mistakes we made yesterday.  That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows." (Ch. 71, ePg. 324, loc. 4398)  Have you ever heard what "they" say?  What part, or all of it?  Do you agree?

The bank robber's children put a lock on the bridge railing to "lock the love in forever". (Ch. 71, ePg. 325, loc. 4415)  What symbolic things have you done for love?

When the bank robber read the story their daughter wrote, they were initially annoyed because they didn't want the daughter to fall victim to princess mentality. (Ch. 71, ePg. 326, loc. 4432)  How do you feel about the princess trend for children?

All the questions above are my own creation; they occurred to me as I was reading.  After finishing the story I saw a couple of similar questions in the Reading Club Guide at the back.  Additionally, I really liked question 12, and post it here in case your copy didn't have the guide in it.:  "Anxious People" is very much a character study.  How did your feelings about these characters change over the course of the book?  Who is your favorite character and why?  Which character surprised you the most and why?

Theme Ideas

Serve flavored beer in honor of Jack and regular beer in honor of Jim.
Serve pizza because the hostages ordered pizza. (Ch. 43)
Serve onion flakes on breakfast cereal and popcorn with Bearnaise sauce in honor of Jim's wife. (Ch. 63, ePg. 285, loc. 3897)

Decorate with a bowl of limes like all good real-estate agents.
Put on a fireworks display. (Ch. 66)  Please use safety precautions.

Playlist:
  • Death Metal, in honor of Zara (Ch. 51, ePg. 223, loc. 3048)
  • my own personal contribution, which I thought of when I read the part about a person's personality being the sum of their experiences (Ch. 71, ePg. 324, loc. 4398) - "You Are More" by Tenth Avenue North

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