My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman

5/5 stars

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is Swedish author Frederik Backman’s companion novel to Britt-Marie Was Here, and takes place before the events in that book.  Seven-year-old Elsa is a precocious, preternaturally mature Harry Potter lover and grammar stickler whose best friend is her grandmother.  Granny is an eccentric, contrarian rule-breaker, the irresponsible friend that gets you in trouble but it’s worth it for the sheer fun of it.

We learn early on that Granny dies and leaves Elsa with a mission to deliver letters to various people who live in their small apartment complex.  Each note includes an apology for something that Granny has done to someone, and through these notes we enter into the world of the myriad characters that make this book so charming.

In this book, Granny’s stories about the mythical kingdom of Miamas invite Elsa into a world that parallels the real one, and Elsa’s world is emblematic of the fantastical imagination of children, where normal things are rendered magical.  Granny’s stories are real and at the same time not, for when there’s “too much reality” in Elsa’s world.  Elsa feels adrift, separated from her divorced parents, dreading the birth of her half-sibling, and scared to like her caring stepfather, because he might stop caring about her once her half-sibling is born.  She is scared of how much further she will become isolated now that her beloved Granny is gone, and even seeing others who loved Granny makes her feel more alone: “They have no right to make Elsa feel as if Granny had other countries and kingdoms to which she had never brought Elsa.”

Elsa, a target of vicious bullying, discovers more about her grandmother’s history, which intertwines with the present and stories about Miamas.  On her mission she is befriended by Wolfheart, a former soldier, addict, and OCD-sufferer; a dog-like wurse whose terrible eating habits are both magical and funny; a cab driver who lives in her building; and a therapist whose tragic story has made her withdraw from life.

This novel is reminiscent of the best of Roald Dahl’s books.  Elsa shares the precocious isolation of the eponymous Matilda, and the wide-eyed and wise Sophie from The BFG.  Even her friendship with Granny recalls the deep relationship between the boy and his grandmother in The Witches, with both grandmothers wise and brave, whose secret knowledge draws each of their grandchildren into a deeply magical world.

Backman has such great compassion for flawed and unlikeable characters, and his world is deeply generous and fundamentally decent, with much to say about the complex bonds of family, both of blood and the kind you let into your life.  Elsa and the other characters in this book are vividly rendered in Backman’s whimsical writing style, with the feel of a fairy tale for adults.  This story’s humor and simplicity has small details and turns of phrases that can be so moving or heart-wrenching, and illustrate how loneliness can make people idiots and how connections with others can save them.

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