Book Review: Anxious People

by John Downey '23 on February 18, 2022
A&E Co-Editor

Arts & Entertainment

Book Review: Anxious People

A Clumsy Mischaracterization of Anxiety

Tully Mahoney ’23

Fredrik Backman is a multi-time bestselling author, making his novel Anxious People utterly disappointing and tacky. The premise of the novel is a bank robbery gone wrong that turns into a hostage situation in an apartment complex in Stockholm, Sweden. Simultaneously, it is a tale about how all of its characters’ backgrounds intertwine into a single storyline, which is outright predictable. A few themes that Backman highlights are generational differences, second chances, compassion, anxiety, and the difficulty of the human experience.

The premise of Anxious People is unfortunately unrealistic. For instance, its clumsy police officers are a father-son duo who quarrel about family drama and walk on eggshells around each other throughout the investigation. In real life, if father and son police officers could not properly interview suspects due to their underlying drama, their station would likely not allow them to work together. Furthermore, stations do not typically assign partners who are related because there are too many factors that would simply make them poor partners. This is just one example of Anxious People’s plot that is genuinely not feasible.

As its title suggests, the novel is about anxious people. However, its characterization of their anxiety is completely stereotypical, leaving Anxious People with a lack of depth. The novel delves into each character’s background, but each character is portrayed as having experienced some traumatic event in their past that made them the person that they are in the present-day setting of the novel. This commonality comes off as unrealistic to readers as well as a tasteless portrayal of anxiety. If the point of this novel is to illuminate the anxiety that plagues so many people, then the origin of each character’s anxiety should not be nearly identical to one another. The truth of anxiety is that some people have it genetically and others develop it due to certain events. Furthermore, everyone’s anxiety presents in different forms, and Anxious People fails to show such depth to the people with anxiety and anxious tendencies.

In addition, the characterization of each figure in the novel is cookie-cutter and flavorless. Each introduction of a new character is written identically, which makes the first 100 pages of the novel quite tough to remain engaged with—and there are too many characters to follow in the first place. Moreover, Anxious People consists of far too much narration and not nearly enough description. Backman does not give any attention to details, making the reader feel like an observer rather than a participant visualizing the action. This level of narration makes the novel’s plot confusing, as it is hidden under so much background context.

Backman also attempts to make Anxious People highlight fundamental truths of human existence. However, the revelation of these truths comes across as forced because the author deliberately tells readers the deeper meanings rather than revealing them through descriptive imagery. Some lines that exemplify this disappointing revelation are: “we are asleep until we fall in love,” “love is wanting you to exist,” and “personality is just the sum of our experiences.” These truths are not ground-breaking, earth-shattering epiphanies. Instead, they are reminiscent of advice a grandmother tells her grandkids while looking back on her life. Since Backman lacks depth in details and descriptors, he is unable to make these truths come across naturally in a way that would make the reader feel like they stumbled across a new revelation. 

Backman’s style of writing has a learning curve for some readers. Chapters range from a typical writing style to a police officer’s investigation notes. Backman uses humor throughout Anxious People and, sometimes, his writing appears to be a stream of consciousness. Despite the novel’s shortcomings, Backman succeeds in producing a connection between characters and readers through his ability to create sympathetic characters. Indeed, the novel has the potential to make readers feel less lonely—since it ultimately seems to be more about lonely people than anxious people—and realize that their human experience is not so different from that of everyone else. If there is any lasting impact of Anxious People, it is certainly this.