Sunday, January 3, 2010

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

The title character of Elizabeth's Strout Pulitzer Prize-winning work is a middle school math teacher (though retired through most of the book), wife of good-natured pharmacist Henry, and mother of Christopher. She is also irascible and judgmental, and her relationships (she would cringe at that word) are generally troubled. If the book were just about Olive, readers would likely get tired of her very quickly. But Strout has brilliantly presented Olive's story--and the larger story of the small town of Crosby, Maine--through a series of short stories, of which only about half focus directly on Olive. In others, she is a relatively minor character, but her role in those stories soften Olive; in one story she tries to help an anorexic girl, while other characters remember advice or concern she offered as a teacher (and still others express surprise that Henry has been able to stay married to her for so many years).

Henry is really the hero of the first story "Pharmacy," a lovely piece that introduces Henry's gentle kindness, his more than 20-year interest in a young assistant, and some of his frustrations with Olive. In another story, son Christopher marries a woman that Olive thinks is a "beast"; at the wedding, Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law mocking the flowered dress Olive wore for the occasion, a dress she made from a fabric that caused her "heart to open" when she saw it at So-Fro. Christopher and his wife move to California and are shortly thereafter divorced, but Christopher stays in California, wounding his parents. Two of the Olive stories are terribly sad. In one, Olive and Henry are taken hostage as part of a drug theft at a hospital and end up hurling insults at each other under the stress, forever altering their relationship. In another, Henry is in a nursing home (blind and mute following a stroke) and Olive ventures to New York by herself to visit Christopher, his second (and pregnant) wife, and her two children; the argument between Olive and Christopher reveals not only Olive's vulnerability but suggests that her mothering was even worse than we might have imagined. These two experiences prompt self-reflection that leads Olive to an unexpected relationship in the collection's final story.

The stories in which Olive is not at the forefront feature an array of odd, lovable, and sad townspeople of Crosby. All are experiencing loss or pain of some kind--a young widow learns on the day of her husband's funeral that he was unfaithful; a young man contemplates suicide; a young woman raised by her silent, pastor father finds her only excitement stealing from her doctor's waiting room; a boozy bar singer is abused by lovers old and new (and may be abusing her own elderly mother).

Somehow, the impact of these stories is not as grim as you might think. Certainly, they are sad, but people also offer each other kindness and support; Olive allows herself to connect; the natural setting offers solace; the people of Crosby soldier on.

This is Novel Conversation's first book for 2010, and I'm looking forward to discussing it tomorrow. I think it will prompt interesting conversation.

Favorite passages:
For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.

(This is the first paragraph of the book and I think it's lovely.)

After that, it was like painting with a sponge, like someone had pressed a paint-wet sponge to the inside of her mind, and only what it painted, those splotches there, held what she remembered of the rest of that night.

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