Summary: Viewing an apartment normally doesn’t turn into a life-or-death situation, but this particular open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes everyone in the apartment hostage. As the pressure mounts, the eight strangers slowly begin opening up to one another and reveal long-hidden truths. Before long, the robber must decide which is the more terrifying prospect: going out to face the police, or staying in the apartment with this group of impossible people.
Rating: 3/5 stars
Anxious People has been floating around in the book world for under six months, and already it’s made an enormous impact on readers. I discovered it because it was one of the five finalists in Book of the Month’s book of the year awards, and since I’d already read all the other nominees, it was the only option to choose from. Plus it was free, which tends to sway me into reading it. So I went into this book expecting great things, despite knowing contemporary fiction is usually pretty hit-or-miss with me, because of course, why would it be a book of the year nominee if it wasn’t amazing?
I knew almost immediately that I was going to love this book, because the author writes with such an odd sense of humor. This reminded me of Lemony Snicket, how quite literal the writing is, drawing out explanations for the reader in a humorous way, almost apologizing to the audience for having to read such a ridiculous story. This is the opening chapter of the story, to give a taste of the writing style:
This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human for.
There is an abundance of characters who are all introduced immediately, almost to the point of overloading the reader, but Backman does an incredible job of giving every character so much personality and their own strong voices, so you never get lost in trying to remember everyone. This is an insane cast: a retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix their own marriage; a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else; a young couple about to have their first child but can’t agree on anything; an old woman who has lived long enough to not be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face; a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent; and a mystery character locked in the bathroom known as “the rabbit.”
What I adored most about this story was how interwoven the lives of these characters are. Certain chapters will emphasize a flashback, and then Backman will say “No, nevermind, don’t worry about what I just told you. Focus on this other part of the story instead.” Naturally, you want to focus on what you just read, because the stories of these characters are so harrowing, but you’re instantly reeled back into the current situation. The book effortlessly bounces back and forth like this, and just when you think there’s no real linear story here, everything wraps up perfectly, and you’re shocked and impressed by the storytelling.
This book has an incredible cast of characters and an emotional story that is told through humor, so of course it was amazing. Until it wasn’t. The story is about a failed bank robber who accidentally holds an apartment of people hostage, and there’s some mystery built around who the bank robber is. But this book takes its time getting down to the truth, and it was frustrating. There are chapters of the police interviewing each of the hostages, and they speak in completely round about ways that ensure you never get any information out of them. They all bicker with each other until it becomes annoying. Some of them are insufferable and emotionless. At some point, they stopped being quirky and became annoying. They truly are the worst cast to be held hostage together.
Had this book been about half the length, I think it would have held up well and I would have enjoyed it more. It just became a matter of being Too MuchTM, and the appeal was lost on me about halfway through. That being said, the ending is way more emotional than I thought it would be, and any book that has me saving quotes from it is worth reading.
They drive all night and all the following day. Knock on her door. Maybe she’ll go home with them, maybe she won’t. Maybe she’s ready to find a better way down, maybe she now knows the difference between how it feels to fly and how it feels to fall, maybe she doesn’t. That sort of thing’s impossible to control, just like love. Because perhaps it’s true what they say, that up to a certain age a child loves you unconditionally and uncontrollably for one simple reason: you’re theirs. Your parents and siblings can love you for the rest of your life, too, for precisely the same reason.
The truth. There isn’t any. All we’ve managed to find out about the boundaries of the universe is that it hasn’t got any, and all we know about God is that we don’t know anything. So the 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.