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Table of Contents
About The Book
An instant #1 New York Times bestseller, the new novel from the author of A Man Called Ove is a “quirky, big-hearted novel….Wry, wise and often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s a wholly original story that delivers pure pleasure” (People).
Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix their own marriage. There’s a wealthy bank director who has been too busy to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to 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 man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.
Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue. As the authorities and the media surround the premises, these reluctant allies will reveal surprising truths about themselves and set in motion a chain of events so unexpected that even they can hardly explain what happens next.
Proving once again that Backman is “a master of writing delightful, insightful, soulful, character-driven narratives” (USA TODAY), Anxious People “captures the messy essence of being human….It’s clever and affecting, as likely to make you laugh out loud as it is to make you cry” (The Washington Post). This “endlessly entertaining mood-booster” (Real Simple) is proof that the enduring power of friendship, forgiveness, and hope can save us—even in the most anxious of times.
A bank robbery. A hostage drama. A stairwell full of police officers on their way to storm an apartment. It was easy to get to this point, much easier than you might think. All it took was one single really bad idea.
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 being for.
Because there’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days. You’re supposed to have a job, and somewhere to live, and a family, and you’re supposed to pay taxes and have clean underwear and remember the password to your damn Wi-Fi. Some of us never manage to get the chaos under control, so our lives simply carry on, the world spinning through space at two million miles an hour while we bounce about on its surface like so many lost socks. Our hearts are bars of soap that we keep losing hold of; the moment we relax, they drift off and fall in love and get broken, all in the wink of an eye. We’re not in control. So we learn to pretend, all the time, about our jobs and our marriages and our children and everything else. We pretend we’re normal, that we’re reasonably well educated, that we understand “amortization levels” and “inflation rates.” That we know how sex works. In truth, we know as much about sex as we do about USB leads, and it always takes us four tries to get those little buggers in. (Wrong way round, wrong way round, wrong way round, there! In!) We pretend to be good parents when all we really do is provide our kids with food and clothing and tell them off when they put chewing gum they find on the ground in their mouths. We tried keeping tropical fish once and they all died. And we really don’t know more about children than tropical fish, so the responsibility frightens the life out of us each morning. We don’t have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there’ll be another one coming along tomorrow.
Sometimes it hurts, it really hurts, for no other reason than the fact that our skin doesn’t feel like it’s ours. Sometimes we panic, because the bills need paying and we have to be grown-up and we don’t know how, because it’s so horribly, desperately easy to fail at being grown-up.
Because everyone loves someone, and anyone who loves someone has had those desperate nights where we lie awake trying to figure out how we can afford to carry on being human beings. Sometimes that makes us do things that seem ridiculous in hindsight, but which felt like the only way out at the time.
One single really bad idea. That’s all it takes.
One morning, for instance, a thirty-nine-year-old resident of a not particularly large or noteworthy town left home clutching a pistol, and that was—in hindsight—a really stupid idea. Because this is a story about a hostage drama, but that wasn’t the intention. That is to say, it was the intention that it should be a story, but it wasn’t the intention that it should be about a hostage drama. It was supposed to be about a bank robbery. But everything got a bit messed up, because sometimes that happens with bank robberies. So the thirty-nine-year-old bank robber fled, but with no escape plan, and the thing about escape plans is just like what the bank robber’s mom always said years ago, when the bank robber forgot the ice cubes and slices of lemon in the kitchen and had to run back: “If your head isn’t up to the job, your legs better be!” (It should be noted that when she died, the bank robber’s mom consisted of so much gin and tonic that they didn’t dare cremate her because of the risk of explosion, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have good advice to offer.) So after the bank robbery that wasn’t actually a bank robbery, the police showed up, of course, so the bank robber got scared and ran out, across the street and into the first door that presented itself. It’s probably a bit harsh to label the bank robber an idiot simply because of that, but… well, it certainly wasn’t an act of genius. Because the door led to a stairwell with no other exits, which meant the bank robber’s only option was to run up the stairs.
It should be noted that this particular bank robber had the same level of fitness as the average thirty-nine-year-old. Not one of those big-city thirty-nine-year-olds who deal with their midlife crisis by buying ridiculously expensive cycling shorts and swimming caps because they have a black hole in their soul that devours Instagram pictures, more the sort of thirty-nine-year-old whose daily consumption of cheese and carbohydrates was more likely to be classified medically as a cry for help rather than a diet. So by the time the bank robber reached the top floor, all sorts of glands had opened up, causing breathing that sounded like something you usually associate with the sort of secret societies that demand a password through a hatch in the door before they let you in. By this point, any chance of evading the police had dwindled to pretty much nonexistent.
But by chance the robber turned and saw that the door to one of the apartments in the building was open, because that particular apartment happened to be up for sale and was full of prospective buyers looking around. So the bank robber stumbled in, panting and sweaty, holding the pistol in the air, and that was how this story ended up becoming a hostage drama.
And then things went the way they did: the police surrounded the building, reporters showed up, the story made it onto the television news. The whole thing went on for several hours, until the bank robber had to give up. There was no other choice. So all eight people who had been held hostage, seven prospective buyers and one real estate agent, were released. A couple of minutes later the police stormed the apartment. But by then it was empty.
No one knew where the bank robber had gone.
That’s really all you need to know at this point. Now the story can begin.
Reading Group Guide
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A failed bank robber flees into an open house apartment viewing, taking its eight prospective buyers hostage. As the pressure mounts, these eight strangers slowly begin opening up to one another and revealing long-hidden truths. Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them are entirely whom they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue. Humorous, compassionate, and wise, Anxious People is an ingeniously constructed story about the enduring power of friendship, forgiveness, and hope—the things that save us, even in the most anxious of times.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The man on the bridge tells the boy, “Do you know what the worst thing about being a parent is? That you’re always judged by your worst moments . . . Parents are defined by their mistakes.” Do you think this statement is true? Does social media make it more likely to be the case these days? In what ways are people critical of other’s parenting choices? Is the bank robber a bad parent?
2. In Anxious People, the author writes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans” and “The worst thing a divorce does to a person isn’t that it makes all the time you devoted to the relationship feel wasted, but that it steals all the plans you had for the future.” Do you make plans for your life or do you let life guide you? Even if our plans often don’t turn out as we’d hoped, is there a benefit to our making them? Discuss these questions with your group.
3. Zara tells her psychologist, “your generation don’t want to study a subject, they want to study themselves.” Is she speaking of millennials? Why are boomers and millennials so critical of each other? How do they see the world differently?
4. Nadia (the psychologist), James (the police officer), Zara, and Estelle all have stories tied in some way to the bridge. What does the bridge represent to each of them? Has the bridge’s meaning changed for them by the end of the book? If so, how?
5. Anna-Lena compares her and Roger’s marriage to a shark that can’t breathe unless it is moving the whole time: “People need a project . . . if we didn’t keep moving, our marriage wouldn’t get any oxygen. So we buy and renovate and sell.” Why does Anna-Lena think that a project is the one thing keeping their marriage from falling apart? What surprised you about their history as individuals and as a couple? How have they underestimated each other, despite having been together for so many years?
6. How did you feel when the identity of the bank robber was revealed? Were your assumptions challenged? How does the author manage to keep this a surprise?
7. Zara appears to be very cold and distant to other people. Is Zara’s attitude toward people a defense mechanism? Do you agree with the psychologist that Zara isn’t depressed, just lonely? What is it that Zara can’t forgive herself for?
8. Estelle says her book-swapping moments with her neighbor were “an affair.” Do you agree? What counts as an affair if there’s no physical relationship involved? What book would you give as a present to a crush?
9. While on the apartment balcony, Zara starts to open up to Lennart. Why is he the person whom she is able to open up to?
10. At the start of Anxious People, the author tells us, “This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.” In what ways are these characters acting like idiots? At the end of the book, do you think that’s still a fair description of them? Are we all, by virtue of being human, inclined to act like idiots from time to time?
11. Jim and Jack, the father and son policemen, have a difficult relationship that is made worse by their working so closely together. What is it that annoys them about each other? What did you make of Jim’s role in resolving the bank robber’s predicament? Should he have told Jack what he was doing sooner? Why didn’t he?
12. 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?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Estelle is very much a lover of wine. With your book club, choose a wine or other beverage that you think pairs with each of the characters. Discuss your choices and have a toast to yourselves and to Anxious People!
2. While they are held hostage, the characters draw closer and closer together. Encourage your book club to go to an “Escape Room” event together. If there isn’t one in your city, play a game that requires you to solve a puzzle together. What was each person’s strength? How well did you work together?
3. Fredrik Backman’s first novel, A Man Called Ove, was made into an Academy Award nominated film, and his novel Beartown will soon be a series on HBO. With your book club, watch A Man Called Ove and discuss how its themes connect to and diverge from those of Anxious People. Discuss which actors you would cast in the primary roles if you were making a movie of Anxious People.
- Publisher: Washington Square Press (July 6, 2021)
- Length: 352 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501160844
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Raves and Reviews
“Backman again captures the messy essence of being human...It’s clever and affecting, as likely to make you laugh out loud as it is to make you cry.” —Washington Post
“Backman’s latest novel hits the sweet spot between profoundly insightful and preposterously funny….I hugged this book tightly with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes.” –USA Today
“The perfect balance of heartwarming and heart-wrenching, and Fredrik Backman has a way of simply yet elegantly describing relationships. We can all be idiots, but we’re still all human beings worthy of connection and love.” –NPR
“A brilliant and comforting read.” —Matt Haig, bestselling author of The Midnight Library
“An endlessly entertaining mood booster.” —Real Simple
"This book examines how a shared event can change the course of many lives at once. And if you like strongly drawn characters and a mix of humor and heartbreak, this one's for you.” –The Skimm
"[A] witty, lighthearted romp...Backman charms." —Publishers Weekly
"Wry, wise and often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s a wholly original story that delivers pure pleasure.” —People
“A deeply funny and warm examination of how individual experiences can bring a random group of people together. Backman reveals each character’s many imperfections with tremendous empathy, reminding us that people are always more than the sum of their flaws.” —BookPage
"[A] tight-knit, surprise-filled narrative... the brisk, absorbing action prompts meditation on marriage, parenting, responsibility, and global economic pressures. Comedy, drama, mystery, and social study, this novel is undefinable except for the sheer reading pleasure it delivers. Highly recommended."—Library Journal (starred review)
“Backman’s latest novel focuses on how a shared event can change the course of multiple people’s lives even in times of deep and ongoing anxiousness. A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.” —Kirkus Review
“Funny, compassionate and wise...an absolute joy.” —AJ Pearce, author of Dear Mrs. Bird
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