BOOK REVIEW | “Anxious People” by Frederik Backman
“Anxious People” combines laugh-out-loud humor with reflections on humanity and relationships
“Anxious People,” the most recent novel by best-selling Swedish author Frederik Backman, follows a group of strangers whose lives become unexpectedly intertwined when they are taken hostage at a small-town apartment viewing.
It’s the day before New Year’s Eve, and each of the story’s 11 characters are dealing with a source of anxiety in their lives. No one struggles more, however, than a parent who fears losing child custody and attempts to rob a bank for money to pay rent. Upon realizing the chosen bank is cashless, however, the failed bank robber flees to a nearby apartment viewing and decides to take the attendees hostage.
“Anxious People” follows the relationships that form between the bank robber and each of the attendees as they are stuck inside the apartment together over the course of the day. Although the situation on the outside looking in seems quite serious, “Anxious People” is actually full of humor— the failed bank robber struggles to keep the hostages under control and the bumbling father and son police duo on the case have no experience handling hostage situations. Even at gunpoint, the hostages don't take the perpetrator and the apparent the life-or-death situation seriously.
Each of the hostages has a unique personality and plays a distinct role in the drama that ensues— there’s an older couple who loves IKEA, a younger couple who’s expecting and can’t seem to stop fighting, a real estate agent with a knack for making cheesy jokes, a cynical pessimist who holds on to past guilt, an elderly woman who loves poetry and books, and even a curious man in a rabbit costume. The combination of this motley crew, the failed bank robber, and the dysfunctional father/son police duo, who are together entangled in the hostage situation, presents an entertaining and insightful look at the imperfect and oftentimes comical lives of everyday people.
Although “Anxious People” is filled with humor, it’s more than anything a thoughtful reflection on humanity. Similar to how the 1985 film “The Breakfast Club” reveals truths about each student when they are stuck together in detention, the hostage situation in “Anxious People” causes a group of strangers to open up to each other and relate to one another in unexpected ways. Each character is more than what they initially seem to be, and the group realizes that their lives are more intertwined than they had previously known.
The novel is told entirely in third person by a narrator who combines humorous anecdotes about each of the characters’ lives with poignant descriptions of human nature. There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments due to the wacky cast of characters and plans-gone-wrong, yet also many moments that address life’s challenges and how people work their way through tough times. Each character deals with their own struggles and traumas, and is forced to make a big decision about moving forward in their lives. Whether it be grief, trauma, insecurity, or misunderstanding in relationships, the characters deal with hardship and are all “anxious people” just trying to make it through the day. Being forced into a shared bizarre situation, however, causes the group to realize that they’re not alone in their problems.
They each bond with someone that understands what they’re going through and changes their outlook on life. A neglected wife connects with an expecting mother, a misunderstood husband speaks with an overly enthusiastic wife, and a cynical financial worker learns from a quirky wannabe actor. The characters touch each other’s lives in unexpected ways.
“Anxious People” is an incredibly funny yet touching look at human relationships that inspires readers to contemplate their own connections to the people around them, whether that be close family or passersby on the street.