The Quick Plot Synopsis and Section-by-Section Summary for Anxious People by Frederik Backman are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
Table of Contents
Quick Plot Synopsis
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Anxious People by Frederik Backman.
The one-sentence version of this is that Anxious People is about a group of people held hostage after a bank robbery who get to know each other, and they end up helping each other and helping the bank robber to find her way out of the mess.
The story, told achronologically, opens by explaining that, on the day before New Years Eve, there has been a failed bank robbery in a small town. The robber goes into a bank to demand a small amount of money, only to learn that it is a cashless bank. The robber flees into a nearby apartment building and into an apartment showing. The robber takes the people there hostage. It's soon surrounded by police. After a hours-long ordeal, the hostages are released. Afterwards, a gunshot goes off and the police storm the apartment to find it empty, but covered in blood.
Afterwards, the police question the eight hostages, all of whom are unhelpful and difficult. The hostages are: the realtor, a young couple (Julia and Ro), an elderly woman (Estelle), a businesswoman (Zara), an older couple (Roger and Anna-Lena) and finally a man (Lennart).
Zara is a bank manager. Ten years ago, a man jumped from a bridge nearby after losing all his money during the financial crisis. He had requested a loan, but was denied by Zara. He mails her a note before he jumps. A decade later, she still keeps it in her handbag, unopened. Jim and Jack are the local policemen investigating the robbery. Jim is Jack's father. As a teenager, Jack had seen the man on the bridge and tried unsuccessfully to convince him not to jump. A week later he sees another girl there, Nadia, about to jump. He pulled her back forcefully, and she grows up to become a psychiatrist.
Julia and Ro are looking for a home, since Julia is pregnant. The older couple, Roger and Anna-Lena, are retirees who renovate and sell apartments. Anna Estelle, a widow, is there on behalf of her daughter. Lennart, an actor, ends up emerging from the bathroom, dressed in a ridiculous rabbit costume (Anna-Lena hires him to ruin viewings to bring down the price).
When the distraught robber comes in with a pistol, they don't take the robber very seriously. But they don't leave, either. The robber is recently divorced. It's revealed that her husband cheated on her with her boss, leaving her homeless, jobless and penniless. She sold her possessions and got a new job (but hasn't been paid yet). She needs just one month's rent to prevent being evicted from her new place. Her husband is also demanding sole custody of their kids. Feeling desperate, she decided to hold up the bank with a gun she finds.
Stuck in the apartment, the group of strangers get to know each other. Julia worries about being a good mother. Ro talks about falling in love with Julia. Estelle talks about missing her late husband. At first people think Roger is a jerk who bosses Anna-Lena around, but that's not the case. Anna-Lena used to have a high-powered job. Roger put his career on hold, so she could pursue her dreams. Now, she helps him with the apartment flipping even though she's tired of it, because she thinks it's his turn to do something that is meaningful to him.
The robber decides to just let all of them go, but they stay to help her figure out a way out of the mess. They're also waiting on a pizza they demanded from the police outside. When Jim comes up to deliver the pizzas, he learns what the robber's story is. He feels bad for her, and he suggests that she hide in the apartment next door, which is vacant. (He later lies and doesn't tell his son about seeing her.) Estelle reveals that this apartment belongs to her daughter. It used to be hers, and she once had an (emotional) affair with the neighbor next door. She still has a key to the apartment. She gives it to the bank robber, who uses it to hide out after the hostages leave.
Afterwards, Jack investigates, trying to learn how the bank robber could have disappeared. He finds out that the blood is fake (it was one of Lennart's props). He figures out that after the phone they sent up (to communicate with the robber) must've vibrated, causing the table to shake and the pistol to fall off, resulting in the errant gunshot. Meanwhile, Jim finally tells Jack the truth about what happened when he went to deliver the pizzas.
Jack and Jim decide not to pursue the case. In the end, no one was injured and nothing was stolen. Estelle ends up staying in that apartment. Estelle lets the robber stay with her. Julia and Ro buy the neighbor's apartment. Zara finally opens the note in the her purse, which simply says "it wasn't your fault", and she starts seeing Lennart. Jack and Nadia reunite. The book ends with the reminder of how people and strangers can impact each others' lives and how we're all just people who want the same basic things and are struggling with the same things.
Chapters 1 – 2
The book starts by discussing a failed bank robbery on the day before New Years Eve that resulted in a hostage situation. The bank robber had fled outside and into the first open door. The only available route was up a flight of stairs where the robber saw an open house for an apartment being sold. The robber takes the eight people hostage (one real estate agent and seven prospective buyers), but released them after a few hours. Afterwards, the police storm the apartment, but find it empty.
(There are brief flashbacks to a man standing on a bridge ten years ago, contemplating suicide. He has dropped his children off at school and put a letter with a message into the mail.)
A policeman questions one of the hostages, the real estate agent. The real estate tells him that the bank robber is still in the apartment. The hostages had been released, but the robber never left. The real estate agent also says that the robber’s gun was fake. The policeman assumes that the hostage is confused, since the policemen who had stormed the apartment had arrived to find it covered in blood.
Chapters 8 – 12
An older officer, Jim, checks to see if Jack, a younger officer who is questioning the real estate agent, is doing alright. Jack gets angry and embarrassed, taking it as an insult that the older officer thinks he needs help. The older officer informs the real estate agent that the robber had, in fact, shot themselves afterwards and that the gun must’ve been real. He then takes over the questioning from Jack (which we now learn is his son).
The book flashes back again to the man on the bridge, ten years ago. A teenage boy comes by (Jack, the young officer), whose parents are a police officer (Jim) and a priest. Young Jack wants to be a police officer like his father, though his father does not want that for him. The boy tries to talk the man off the ledge, but the man is distraught after investing in real estate and losing everything during the financial crisis. The man jumps. Years later, it still haunts Jack.
Jim, the older officer, explains to the real estate agent that they know the bank robber shot himself, but they didn’t find the body. If they don’t get the robber medical attention, the robber will likely die. Jim asks the real estate agent about a drawing they found in the stairwell, but she says she doesn’t recognize it.
Chapters 13 – 17
Jack has a sister, 7 years older. The sister has a substance abuse problem, and Jim and Jack aren’t in touch with her. She only calls to ask for money. Jim hasn’t given up on getting her back, but Jack has accepted that she’s never going to be in their lives.
All the witnesses claim not to know what is going on. Jack and Jim suspect that the witnesses are hiding something. Jim and Jack are frustrated, partially because the Stockholm Police will soon be coming to take over the case from these local police officers.
Next, they question London, the bank teller that day. London, a vapid 20-year-old, was working when the robber pulled out a pistol and displayed a note demanding 6,500 kroner (which seemed low). However, the bank is a cashless bank and London explains that they have no cash. The robber ends up just running out of the door after London declares that she’s going to call the police.
Upon running out, the robber sees a traffic warden who the robber mistakes for a police officer. The robber panics and runs through the first open door and ends up at the apartment showing. Just before robber closes the door to the apartment, however, a piece of paper with a child’s drawing of a mish-moshed animal falls out of the robber’s pocket and into the stairwell. A postman in the building alerts the police about the situation.
Chapter 18 – 21
The book now explains that the man on the bridge and the bank robber don’t know each other and aren’t connected, except that each is a victim of banking policies that ensure that a bank is protected, but people aren’t.
The man on the bridge had handed over his savings to a bank to be invested in real estate, but they’d lost his money when the markets crashed. He had gone to a different bank to ask for a loan, but was rejected. The woman working at the bank had then explained the concept of “moral hazard” to him (whereby institutions have incentives to behave immorally). She says that it’s his fault the money was lost, because he never should have given it to the bank. Before the man jumps, he writes a letter to that woman, sharing his thoughts. The woman keeps that letter with her always in her purse. Ten years later, that woman becomes a hostage when a failed bank robber walks into an apartment showing.
In present day, two sisters with divorced parents don’t yet know that one of their parents has become a bank robber. The younger sibling has slipped a drawing into the pocket of her parent, the robber, that morning.
Their parents got divorced as a result of one of their parents cheating and falling in love with the other’s boss. The other parent ended up broken-hearted and unemployed as a result. The cheating parent soon applies for sole custody of the children. The other parent is desperate for the money to get a place to live. After selling any possessions in order to pay for one months’ rent, the future robber finds a job, but doesn’t get paid until two months’ in. Desperate for that extra month’s rent (of 6,500 kroner), the robber applies for a loan but is denied for being too risky. The soon-to-be robber stores her leftover possessions in the storage area of an apartment but later finds to what was initially thought to be a toy pistol, but is actually a real pistol.
The bank robber’s mother was an alcoholic. They were poor. The robber remembers one Christmas selling magazines for food and giving the money to her mother, who drank it away, saying “You shouldn’t have given me the money.”
The book now jumps in time to the hostage situation being underway. Jim and Jack had shown up, but didn’t know what to do. There’s also a situation involving a tangle of electronics in the stairwell, which Jim and Jack think may be a bomb. However, there are two apartments at the top floor, one with all the hostages and then a different one. The box just actually just contains a tangle of Christmas lights that haven’t been stored properly by the people in the other apartment. Meanwhile, Stockholm is contacted about the situation, and a specialist negotiator calls, telling them to “contain the situation” until he arrives. However, the negotiator ends up in bad traffic, leaving them to their own devices.
Chapters 22 – 27
One of the hostages is Zara, a woman in her fifties who appears well off. She works as a bank manager and is blunt and unsympathetic towards others. Zara has recently begun seeing a psychologist because she’s had trouble sleeping. She. She’s also deeply unhappy. In the psychologists’s office, there’s a picture of a woman standing on a bridge, and Zara wonders if she’s contemplating suicide.
Zara was not at the apartment viewing to buy it, instead she finds it addictive to go to apartment viewings for places below her socio-economic bracket. She says that when she saw the gun, she was surprised to realize that she didn’t want to die. At one of the meeting with her psychologist, her psychologists says that she thinks most people feel the need to think they are good people. Thinking about the unopened letter in her purse (which she has been carrying for a decade), Zara suspects that her psychologist is right.
A week after the man jumps off the bridge, a teenage girl named Nadia goes to the bridge after hearing about the suicide the week before. Nadia feels alone and unhappy. Young Jack sees her, pulls her down forcefully and she hits her head. Nadia wakes up in the hospital. After that, she spends her life wondering what separated her from the man who had jumped. She ends up becoming a psychologist. She leaves town, but moves back and ends up with Zara as a client.
Zara actually had seen Jack pull Nadia off the bridge that day and has followed Nadia’s life and career ever since. She also wonders what separated Nadia from the man who actually jumped. Zara had gotten the letter, marked with the man’s name, the day after he’d jumped. She’d remembered him and everyone in town knew who it was that had killed himself. She still hasn’t opened the letter and she worries that perhaps she’s the reason.
Chapters 28 – 36
The apartment viewing had been going poorly even before the bank robber arrived. In addition to Zara and the real estate agent, there were two couples and an older woman, Estelle. Anna-Lena and Roger are retirees who like to buy, renovate and sell apartments. Anna-Lena has been instructed by her husband to walk around making disparaging comments about the apartment. Roger is a former engineer, well-respected at work, who was forced to retire. He was disappointed to find out after he left that things had continued on smoothly without him.
A younger couple, Julie and Ro, are also present, but fighting over birds (Ro has pet birds that Julie hates) and other issues in their relationship. Julie is also pregnant. Zara gets mad at Ro when she tries to eat one of the limes being used for decoration in the apartment. Ro notes that there’s no signal in the apartment.
Julie finally lashes out at Ro, loudly, when the bank robber enters. Only Zara notices the gun at first, since everyone else is focused on Julie and Ro’s argument. There’s mass confusion after they realize what is going on and the bank robber starts to cry. Estelle finally comes over and nicely offers the bank robber some water, which is gratefully accepted.
The hostages talk and argue among themselves until Julia tries to use the bathroom and realizes that it’s locked. Julia wants to use the pistol to shoot it open. Julia keeps demanding that the robber shoot the door open until it finally opens by itself. A man in his fifties wearing a rabbit head (with underpants and socks) walks out, asking them not to shoot. Anna-Lena admits that she knows this man and that his name is Lennart. Lennart admits that Anna-Lena has been paying him to interrupt or otherwise ruin viewings (and bring down the price). Roger is distraught to know that their real estate deals have been because of Lennart and not his superior negotiating abilities.
Chapters 37 – 43
In interviewing Roger, it’s established that there might be a 3-foot crawl space between that apartment and the one next to it. Jack wonders if perhaps that’s where the bank robber is hiding. Jack hurries to check the wall, but after inspecting it, it’s clear there’s no way the robber could have gotten in and patched it up that neatly.
Jumping back in time, after the Leonard reveal, Anna-Lena feels bad about hurting Roger. Anna-Lena and Julie chat in the walk-in closet. She is tired of flipping houses, but loves him and wants him to be happy. She says that Roger is a good man. She cites a story about how he waited twenty minutes in a parking spot in a crowded lot because he had promised the spot to someone who had asked for it, and it took the guy that long to finally get over there. Anna-Lena also says that she thinks having grandchildren would give Roger more meaning in life, but their two children both don’t want kids. There’s a draft in the closet, but they don’t think about where it’s coming from.
After Jack and Jim check the wall, they check out the closet and notice the draft in the closet. They find a ventilation duct, but all they find there is a rabbit head.
Jumping back in time, the hostages get the idea to order pizza. They decide to scream out the window to ask the police to order them some pizza. The police have trouble hearing though, so they decide to write it down instead. They attach their request to a lime and toss it down to the police, which conks Jack on the head, leaving a bruise.
Chapters 44 – 51
After Jim and Jack find the ventilation duct, they note that it’s sealed at the end. The look at the fireplace, and find the remains of the ski mask in the ashes of the fireplace. As they continue to look around the apartment, one of the officers brings up the fact that the blood everywhere is not real blood. It’s stage blood.
Jack sees the bullet in the wall and realizes that the bank robber didn’t shoot himself. In fact, the robber wasn’t even in the room when it happened. Instead, he notes that the phone they sent in (a special phone that can communicate in areas without a signal) was on vibrate. They called the phone right after the hostages were released. Jack thinks it must have vibrated, causing the table to shake which caused the pistol to drop off the table and shoot at the wall.
As Jack explains his theory to his father, he thinks about how it’s just the two of them now. Jack thinks about his mother’s death, about how she had been sick, dying in a hospital bed. She had been a priest, but had never convinced Jack to believe in God. Jack recalls how he had gotten mad at her for going into dangerous situations to try to help.
Jack exclaims to his father that he doesn’t think the robber is hidden somewhere. Instead, she must have walked out with the rest of the hostages. He walks in and accuses the real estate agent of being the bank robber.
Jumping back in time, after the hostages had requested pizza, Jack and Jim decide it’s probably their best method of communicating with the robber. Jim has the idea to put the phone in one of the pizza boxes, which Jack is impressed by. Jim insists on being the one to deliver the boxes.
After the hostages are released, Zara goes to visit Nadia, her therapist. Nadia starts pushing Zara to talk more about herself, and she encourages Zara to go out to try new things or to fall in love.
Chapters 52 – 53
When the hostage negotiator from Stockholm finally shows up, he tells them about the last hostage situation he was involved in. He says that the man had released the hostages, but then shot himself. That thought bothers Jack. Meanwhile, they spot one of the hostages, a woman in the fifties, out on the balcony of the apartment, calmly listening to headphones. Despite the negotiator’s instructions, Jim goes ahead to enter the building and deliver the pizzas.
In the apartment, Zara is feeling uncomfortably close and empathetic towards her fellow hostages, so she goes outside to the balcony. Zara thinks about her guilt for working in the financial industry, one that is crushing so many people. Lennart, is an actor who spoils events as a side gig, follows her outside He starts to get on her nerves, and they get into an argument. When Zara says that she thinks Roger and Anna-Lena don’t love each other, Lennart disagrees vehemently.
Lennart says that contrary to what the people in there think, Anna-Lena isn’t just someone who gets bossed around by her husband. She had a high powered career while Roger gave his up to care for their children. When she reached a point where she felt like she could let him pursue his career dreams, it was too late. He was too old to be offered promotions. Now, Anna-Lena goes along with his renovation plans even though she’d rather do something else because she knows it feels meaningful to him, and she recognizes what he sacrificed for her.
Chapters 54 – 60
Inside, Estelle and Julia talk about Estella’s happy marriage to her now deceased husband Knut. She describes how she never fell out of love with him, and how they’d made an agreement early on to never saying things just for the purpose of hurting each other or for the purpose of “winning” an argument.
Julia shares a story about her former fiance from before she met Ro. The ex-fiance had liked adventurous activities like bungee jumping and Julia had realized they weren’t compatible. Julia, a florist, ended up meeting Ro when Ro walked into her flower shop. She talks about how much Ro makes her laugh. Julia also tells them that her mother was a cleaner and her father was abusive. Julia worries that she won’t be a good mother, but Estelle and Anna-Lena reassure her that she’ll be fine.
Suddenly, Estelle admits that she had an affair once, when Knut was still alive, with a neighbor. Estelle also says that it never became a physical affair though. As the women chat, they get the idea to help the bank robber. They start brainstorming ways to help her escape. They note that they haven’t seen the real estate around, so the robber could pretend to be the real estate agent instead. However, just as soon as they come up with this plan, they find the (legit) real estate agent hiding up in the hatch in the closet.
At the police station, Jack is convinced that the real estate agent is the bank robber. He also demands to know why the robber had requested fireworks. Jack’s frustration rises until Jim calms him down, assuring his son that he’s spoken to the bank robber. Jim explains that after he went in with the pizzas, a man in a mask using a bunch of different accents had answered the door. The man had then requested fireworks. In exchange, he would release the hostages.
Chapters 61 – 65
After the real estate agent’s hiding place was revealed, Lennart falls over while getting the hatch opened. When he emerges from the closet, the others are aghast to see the blood, only to learn quickly that it’s just stage blood. He had been intending to use it for his bit, but now it’s all over the carpet.
Then the real estate agent explains that she’d been hiding in the closet the whole time. The others introduce the real estate agent to the bank robber. By that point, the bank robber has decided to give up and let everyone go. However, the others agree to stay and wait for the pizza at least, so they can try to sort things out. Jim arrives with the pizza. They all acknowledge it might be the police and whoever answers the door may get shot. A number of them volunteer to be the one to get the door.
The book jumps forward in time, to after the hostages have been questioned by the police. They discuss afterwards, and they all confirm they’ve tried to be as obtuse with the police as possible to avoid being helpful. (The exception is London, who is upset to find out it was a real gun. A few days later, the bank robber will write her a note to apologize.) Meanwhile, Jim admits to Jack that he lied about what happened when he went up to deliver the pizzas, and he says he knows that the Realtor isn’t the bank robber.
In truth, the bank robber ends up deciding that she should get the door herself. She answers the door without a mask, and he asks her to put down the pistol, so she does. They start chatting, and he asks about how she ended up here. Jim feels bad for her, and he knows that if she gets arrested she’ll likely get her children taken away.
Since the real estate agent has the keys to all the apartments, Jim suggests that the bank robber hide in the second apartment on that floor. He says he thinks the police are unlikely to barge in there, not at first at least, and if they do, she can just pretend she lives here. The bank robber is grateful for his help, but says that he doesn’t know if she deserves to be saved. Jim tells her to find him in ten years and tell him if he was wrong about her. Finally, the robber asks him for fireworks, because Estelle used to watch them with her husband, and she thinks it would be nice her to see some. Jim agrees.
Chapters 66 – 70
Soon, the fireworks start going off outside by the bridge and the hostages all go out to the balcony to watch. After the fireworks, the real estate agent is busy arguing with Roger, Ro and Julie over the price of this apartment. When she mentions that the apartment next door is going to put on the market soon, their ears perk up in interest. She says it’s basically the same as this one, but it has a smaller closet and excellent cell reception.
When Julia asks about the keys, it turns out she doesn’t have them. However, Estelle then starts talking to herself about her affair. It turns out this apartment used to be hers. She gave it to her daughter, but her daughter doesn’t want to live there. Estelle’s affair was with the neighbor next door, who gave her a key to his place at one point, which she still has. Later, a younger couple moved in, but they never changed the locks.
The robber takes the key and then instructs the hostages to leave. She doesn’t tell them her plan so that they can honestly tell the police that she was still in the apartment when they left.
After Jim tells Jack the truth about what really happened in there, Jack goes out to talk to the media who are buzzing about “police incompetence” for losing the bank robber. The detectives from Stockholm arrive the next day, but given that no money was taken and no one was hurt, are unwilling to devote any extra resources to investigating.
When Zara leaves the police station, Lennart chases after her, offering to share a cab.
Somewhere else, someone who has hidden a pistol away in a random box in the storage area for an apartment searches the box but is unable to find their pistol.
Later, Estelle is now neighbors with Julia and Ro, living in the two apartments at the top of the stairwell. Estelle also gets a roommate. Because Estelle’s daughter technically owns the apartment, the woman rents it from the daughter for 6,500 kroner and Estelle sublets for the same amount. (Much later, all the hostages all attend Estelle’s funeral together.)
Roger and Anna-Lena go to a movie instead of an IKEA (implying that perhaps they are done with the house flipping).
Later, Zara goes to see Nadia and tells her that she’s decided to quit her job, which she no longer believes in. She then shows Nadia the unopened letter, needing someone else to read it to her. It’s four words long, and it says “it wasn’t your fault.” She ends up dropping the note into the water to let it go, before going back to the car where Lennart is waiting for her.
Chapters 71 – 72
Before this all started, during the divorce, the bank robber had found a story that her daughter had written in school about two warring kingdoms (i.e. her parents) who destroyed everything in their wake. Upset over how the divorce was affecting her children, the bank robber had decided to stop fighting her soon-to-be-ex-husband and just let him have their home (which was in his name), leaving her homeless. She also stopped fighting her old boss for her job back, leaving her penniless. She did it for her children, but then she ended up desperate and faced with the possibility of losing them.
Jack is offered a job in Stockholm, but decides to stay in their small town. Jim tells him not to stay on his account, but Jack thinks to himself that his mother would say that here are worse reasons to stay somewhere. Then, Jack and Jim decide to go see Jack’s sister, not knowing what they’ll find.
Chapters 73 – 74
As it turns out, Zara had recognized Jack as the boy at the bridge from long ago. She leaves him an envelope with a photo of the bridge and Nadia’s address. Jack goes to see her and after they work out who the other person is, they smile at each other. Meanwhile, Zara has quit her job and made a large donation to a camp that Nadia is involved with for children who have lost a loved one to suicide.
The book ends with the reminder of how people and strangers can impact each others’ lives and how we’re all just people who want the same basic things and are struggling with the same things.