Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Walking behind her son and his large wife, and the big double stroller pushed ahead of them, Olive thought of her husband, in bed already perhaps; they tried putting them bed earlier than small children were put to bed.  "Spoke to your father today," she said, but Christopher apparently did not hear her.  He and Ann were speaking intently, their heads tilted toward each other as they pushed the stroller along.  Oh god, yes, she was glad she'd never left Henry.  She'd never had a friend as loyal, as kind, as her husband.

And yet, standing behind her son, waiting for the traffic light to change, she remembered how in the midst of it all there had been times when she'd felt a loneliness so deep that once, not so many years ago, having a cavity filled, the dentist's gentle turning of her chin with his soft fingers had felt to her like a tender kindness of almost excruciating depth, and she had swallowed with a groan of longing, tears springing to her eyes.  ("Are you all right, Mrs. Kitteridge?" the dentist had said.)

There are times when Olive Kitteridge is only incidental to the stories which make up the book that bears her name.  Sometimes she'll walk in and out of a story, only glimpsed.  Other times a character will turn out to be a student of hers at school, a long time ago.  It's a clever gimmick, but it expresses something powerful and affirming: to really tell the story of a person, Strout argues, you have to tell the various stories of the people whose lives have been impacted by them.  That's a beautiful thought, especially for a teacher like me, like Olive, though it seems to paper over some of the more negative ways that we might impact others.  (Even taciturn, crabby Olive mostly seems to have been a positive influence on her students.)

But Olive is a powerful character--strong-willed, ill-tempered, but also deep and thoughtful--that this gimmick becomes the collection's weakness.  The stories which mostly bypass Olive, and tell the stories of the other denizens of Crosby, Maine, often don't work as well.  For every one that works--like the Alice Munro-like "Ship in a Bottle," about a young girl coming to understand the fraught relationship between her mother and sister--there's one, like "The Piano Player," which feels rote or doesn't land.  And Olive isn't always well-used: in the worst story, she counsels a young man against committing suicide.  Another story, in which Olive and her husband are held hostage by masked gunmen, seems strangely incongruous, even though it makes a powerful final statement.

But when the focus is on the inner life of Olive, the collection really works.  It's hard to place the best moments because they happen over several stories, which seem less contained than the non-Olive ones: over the course of the book Olive watches her son leave for California, a man she loved die in a car wreck, and her husband fall paralyzed from a stroke.  Through these moment Strout contrasts Olive's human fear of aging and death with the harshness of her exterior.  It's only then that we really understand the Olive who is regarded as a kind of surly saint by her students, and when the book really succeeds.

1 comment:

Penelope Sanchez said...

This book is an exploration of the topics of life and death, the loneliness we experience in and out of human relationships, lack of understanding between parents and children, husbands and wives.

At times, the book is melancholy, sad and even heartbreaking. Sometimes, it is also extremely funny. I strongly recommend it to anyone in search of good English prose.

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