Britt-Marie Was Here

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This is our third novel by Fredrick Backman. He has a great comedic style. I listened to some audio and read the e-book. The e-book was translated to American English but the audio was in British English. For example, "baking soda" vs. "bicarbonate of soda". It was not a problem, just a note of interest. At the end, I might've been a little distracted while listening, but I wasn't really sure how things wound up because some of the wording, following the well established style, was vague. So I had to read the ending after I heard it. Even then it was a little fuzzy. I read it a second time just before publishing this review and it finally made sense although still a little vague. Perhaps that way everyone can have a happy ending because it is left up to your imagination.

Britt-Marie is a 63 year old woman who has recently left her husband. She has lived a very prescribed life, up until that point so this departure from her normal leaves quite a lot for comment - not only how she adjusts to the world but how the world adjusts to her. To fully enjoy the book one must suspend a little bit of belief in the way the world works - if you think about it too much you might not believe that the small community of Borg would even give Britt-Marie a second chance. Or that Kent, near 70 years old and post heart-attack, runs around soccer pitches with only one shoe on and a child on his back. But suspending that belief is not hard to do because this is really quite a charming story.

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

Sex: 0

Religion: 2

Gruesome: 1

Suspense: 1

Morality: 4

Traditional: 3

Sex - 0

Religion - a young girl takes the Lord's name in vain (ePg. 140, loc. 1696) "Britt-Marie doesn't know if she is religious, but she imagines that it's good enough, the knowledge that God has plans for Borg." (EPg. 314, loc. 3827)

Gruesome - there are some off-page deaths

Suspense - curiosities but not suspense

Morality - people generally try to do the right thing, or at least do their best

Traditional - there is a reference to a boy who likes boys, instances of parents not in the home

Sex - none mentioned

Probably my favorite page in the whole book was ePg. 150. I think the author does a fabulous job of summing up an average life in one page. Kent and Britt-Marie were always waiting for the next big thing..."Just a few more months. Just a few years. ... Britt-Marie never had a plan, she hoped it would be enough if you were faithful and in love. Until the day came when it wasn't enough." I think this happens to a lot of people. I gave up a career to stay home with my youngest child. I didn't have a specific plan but figured I'd go back to work when he went to school, or middle school, or high school, or college. He's about to start high school and while I have worked, I haven't re-started my career and at this point I'm not sure if I will.

And in the next paragraph Britt-Marie demonstrates a manner that Kent had for speaking negatively and insultingly and comments that she never liked it but never said anything. There are some situations where I can almost recite word for word what my husband will say about it because it's just the way he grumbles through life and yet I never ask him to refrain and by now he's said it so often I probably never will ask him to stop because it'd just be weird.

Discussion Questions

"Forks. Knives. Spoons. In that order." (ePg. 1) How is your cutlery drawer arranged?

Britt-Marie says "Sometimes she reorganized because it was necessary, and sometimes she did it because she loved hearing him call out her name in the mornings." (ePg. 12, loc. 148) Is there anything you do for the sake of being needed - perhaps intentionally or unintentionally?

In the beginning Britt-Marie often misses Kent and makes statements such as, If Kent were here. Where did you think he was?

Britt-Marie was very set in her ways. "Because you can't change Britt-Marie's way of seeing the world. Because once Britt-Marie has taken a position on the world there's no changing her." (ePg. 37, loc. 437) How set in your ways are you?

Was Britt-Marie's car every really broken or was the explosion really just a ball hitting her car creating the "soccer ball-shaped dent in the passenger door"? (ePg. 41, loc. 479)

Britt-Marie has many uses for baking soda and other kitchen staples. (ePg. 42, loc. 495) Have you ever tried any of these? Do you have any other uses?

Pretend you are a psycho-analyst and Britt-Marie is your patient. What would your diagnosis be? Consider: Britt-Marie refers to the proprietor of the pizzeria (and other businesses) only as "Somebody" and never properly introduces herself, despite her good manners. Have you ever gone so long without knowing someone's name that it is embarrassing to ask? Britt-Marie often engages in self-talk regarding how she does not judge people. (ePg. 46, loc. 531) Why does she say it so often? Is she trying to convince herself? Are there times when she is more or less judge-y? Does she evolve in how she appraises people? She also comments several times about how "Kent said that Britt-Marie was socially incompetent". (ePg. 47, loc. 552) Was she? What lies have people put in your head? What lies do we put in our own heads, like in the movie "I Feel Pretty"? As much as Britt-Marie thinks she follows proper etiquette, she frequently calls the woman at the unemployment office and just starts talking without any pre-amble.(ePg. 133, loc. 1615) Doesn't she realize this is poor etiquette? "Civilized people with normal lives are actually not in the habit of visiting prisons." (ePg. 149, loc. 1806) Why does Britt-Marie manage to be civilized but not compassionate?

Britt-Marie was determined to assemble the IKEA piece all by herself. (ePg. 54, loc. 640) What projects have you completed that became important rights of passage for you?

In Chapter 7 Britt-Marie reflects on her marriage, "She knows that once upon a time he did care. That was back in the days when he still looked at her as if he knew she was there. It's difficult to know when love blooms; suddenly one day you wake up and it's in full flower. It works the same way when it wilts -- one day it is just too late. ...Britt-Marie doesn't know when their marriage slipped out of her hands. When it became worn and scratched up...the one with the biggest dreams always wins in this world. So she stayed home to take care of his children, without even dreaming of having any of her own. She stayed home another few years him in his career, without dreaming of her own." (ePg. 46, loc. 540) Is Britt-Marie's story typical or unusual?

"All marriages have their bad sides, because all people have weaknesses. If you live with another human being you learn to handle these weaknesses in a variety of ways." (ePg. 116, loc. 1388) - like cleaning around the heavy furniture. How do you handle weaknesses?

"Sometimes it's easier to go on living, not even knowing who you are, when at least you know precisely where you are while you go on not knowing." (ePg. 125, loc. 1511) Do you agree with this philosophy? Is it ever okay to live in this state of ignorance?

Chapter 8 provides a back-story that helps explain why cleaning is so important to Britt-Marie. How have tragedies in your life shaped you? At one point Britt-Marie runs down the stairs like she hasn't done since she was a teenager, "when your heart reaches the front door before your feet". (ePg. 189, loc. 2311) Is this consistent with how she described herself growing up in her sister's shadow? Britt-Marie's mom used to say things like, "We have to pray that Britt-Marie finds a man who can support her, otherwise she'll have to live in the gutter, because she has absolutely no talents of her own," and tell people that Britt-Marie was her punishment for her sins. (ePg. 190, loc. 2316) How much did this affect who Britt-Marie became?

"It's easier to stay optimistic if you never have to clear up the mess afterwards." (ePg. 72, loc. 860)

Does this statement indicate that Britt-Marie is a pessimist? What other characteristics or comments support or refute this idea?

Britt-Marie said she "wasn't notified that [her] range of duties included taking care of children". (ePg. 78, loc. 946) What did she think her duties were - just to clean an empty building day after day? She told Sven the children were not her responsibility. (ePg. 98, loc. 1168) Did she really not know what a rec-center was?

"Soccer is a curious game, because it doesn't ask to be loved. It demands it." (ePg. 81, loc. 971) What is your favorite sport? Does it demand to be loved? The kids had several superstitions to follow while watching a soccer match. (ePg. 82, loc. 984) Do you have any sports superstitions?

Britt-Marie who loves for things to be clean, befriends a rat, establishes a regular feeding routine, talks to it, confides in it, and leaves notes for it. (ePg. 171, loc. 2081) What does her relationship with the rat symbolize?

Who is the most broken character in this story? Who makes the greatest transformation? Britt-Marie was a spin-off from "My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry". What character would you like to see spun off from the Britt-Marie novel?

Karl frequently received packages. At one point, Britt-Marie even wonders about it (ePg. 177, loc. 2153) just at the same time I was wondering about it. Was there ever an explanation?

When Kent comes back, Britt-Marie reflects: is more than the shoes your feet are in. More than the person you are. It's the togetherness. The parts of yourself in another. Memories and walls and cupboards and drawers with compartments for cutlery, so you know where everything is. / A life of adaptation towards a perfect organization, a streamlined existence based on two personalities. A shared life of everything that's normal. Cement and stone, remote controls and crosswords, shirts and baking soda, bathroom cabinets and electric shavers in the third drawer. He needs her for all that. If she's not there, nothing is as it should be. (ePg. 195, loc. 2391) Does this describe a marriage on sold ground / mutual respect - or in a rut?

Kent and Britt-Marie went to the restaurant in town with "white tablecloths and a menu without photographs". (ePg. 204. loc. 2490) Was that the same place Sven wanted to take her? Kent "stops the waitress to ask for the pepper mill even though he hasn't tried the food yet." (ePg. 205, loc. 2510) Do you season before you taste? Britt-Marie ordered French fries even though she doesn't like them or eat the but she does it in case Kent needs more food. (ePg. 205, loc. 2514) Do you have any tricks to managing your spouse?

"At a certain age almost all the questions a person asks himself are about one thing: how should you live your life?" (ePg. 270, loc. 3301) What age was that for you?

Britt-Marie tried to talk to Kent about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. (ePg. 274, loc. 3343) Where do you fall on the hierarchy? Where is Britt-Marie on the hierarchy? She often talked about Kent meeting with Germans (e.g. ePg. 282, loc. 3443). Was that code for having an affair? When did you figure it out? When did Britt-Marie figure it out?

Britt-Marie says "A human does not choose her circumstances but she does choose her actions." (ePg. 283, loc. 3456) "She asks herself if choices or circumstances make us the sort of people we become..." (ePg. 283, loc. 3459) "She wonders what takes the most out of a person: to be the kind that jumps, or the kind that doesn't?" (ePg. 283, loc. 3460) She reflects that, "Samie went to town to protect someone who doesn't deserve it, and [she] is getting ready to go home for the same reason. Because if we don't forgive those we love, then what is left? What is love if it's not loving our lovers even when they don't deserve it." (ePg. 283, loc. 3463) How do you feel about Britt-Marie's philosophies?

Liverpool supporters always think you can turn things around - they never give up. (ePgs. 163, 164, 176, locs. 1981, 1996, 2144) Tottenham supporters always give more love than they get back. (ePg. 188, loc. 2295) Manchester United supporters always win so they believe they deserve to. (ePg. 210, loc. 2561) "...The team that an individual supports plays a role in the way that person is perceived by others..." (ePg. 326, loc. 4019) Are there stereotypes about fans of any sport that you follow? Are they accurate?

"Soccer forces life to move on. There's always a new match. A new season. There's always a dream that everything can get better. It's a game of wonders." (ePg. 296, loc. 3614) Is this true of every sport or pass-time? Banks supports Aston Villa because nobody else does and because she likes their uniforms. (ePg. 315, loc. 3847) Britt-Marie thinks liking them for their uniforms is more rational? Which do you think is the more rational reason to like them?

In Ch. 36 Britt-Marie tells the receptionist, "It was very brave of you, putting that tie on. Because it looks absolutely preposterous." (ePg. 301, loc. 3669) Britt-Marie hadn't made such a comment in quite a while. Does this indicate that she had changed / improved in Borg and is now falling back to her old ways since she is with Kent again? She also struck the receptionist several times with her handbag. (ePg. 301, loc. 3671) Did she learn that behavior from Banks or was that always her impulse and the reason why she often held her bag so tight so often?

Kent thinks he is not too old to build his whole life all over again (ePg. 303, loc. 3702). Why does Britt-Marie thinks she's too old to fall in love again?

When the local council agreed to either fund a soccer field or fund Britt-Marie's job at the activity center (ePg. 309, loc. 3773) - which was the better choice?

"If a human being closes her eyes hard and long enough, she can remember all the times she has made a choice in her life just for her own sake." (ePg. 321, loc. 3919) Why does Backman start with the general human being and then move to her instead of their? "If a human being closes her eyes she can remember all the choices in her life. And realize they have all been for the sake of someone else." (ePg. 321, loc. 3924)

Can you remember a time when you made a choice for your own sake?

Were you satisfied with the ending? Would you add or subtract anything?

Theme Ideas

Serve vodka and orange juice because Kent liked to drink it while watching soccer. Have a soccer game broadcasting on the TV. Decorate with a soccer theme. Make sure to have plenty of coasters around for drinks.

Serve pizza as a tribute to the only viable restaurant in Borg.

Britt-Marie often rescued plants that her neighbors discarded (and lied to Kent that she'd bought them). (ePg. 77, loc. 933) Rescue some plants and give them to your guests.

Serve blueberry jam, like Sven gave Britt-Marie as a welcome-to-Borg gift, because he'd done a class. (ePg. 79, loc. 960) Serve sushi because Sven took a class and Britt-Marie "finds herself spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about sushi and how you make it." (ePg. 130, loc. 1567)

Serve Snickers bars like Britt-Marie fed the rat on a regular basis.

Serve tacos like the first time Britt-Marie ate at Vega's house. (ePg. 133, loc. 1607) She was so impressed by them she thought about telling Kent. (ePg. 205, loc. 2510)

Work crossword puzzles.

Serve eggs (like Bank served to the dog) and bacon (all that Bank had left to serve Britt-Marie). (ePg. 209, loc. 2550)