Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008) Random House (2008) 270 pp
I’m not sure when I would have read Olive Kitteridge, if ever, had it not been awarded the Pulitzer Prize last Monday. For one thing, the book is not marketed to me. With its coloring (probably going for a warm, autumnal quality but which instead brought to mind a too-rich honey — and I’m still not sure why the pictures are cropped the way they are, as if the whole setting is overlaid with saccharine), its cursive title, and its lead quote from The Oprah Magazine when there are quotes from The New York Times and The New Yorker inside, I still was not quite sure I would get on with this book. Perhaps the marketing was genius and drew in far more money than, say, a Gilead-, Home-, or A Mercy-esque cover would have, but I’m convinced there are still many readers in a non-bookclubby audience who are hesitating before reading. erhaps, like me, they think this looks like one of those books that in an effort to poeticize pain and loss ends up, rather, sentimentalizing them to the point of bathos.
Well, no one should hesitate any longer, at least not if what you inferred from the book’s cover was the hang-up. Olive Kitteridge is a sublime and subtle book, and Strout shows that she deserves to be placed alongside Robinson and Morrison (and I’m sure many other American women authors, whose books I’m excited to get to) in the top tiers of American women authors. By the way, I don’t think I use the word “sublime” too often (quick check done after this post was written: the only other time “sublime” is used on this blog is in a pulled quote from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; this is interesting in retrospect to what I wrote here).
Sometimes, when I have such low expectations for a book, I end up liking it primarily — if not solely — because it surprised me by being better than I’d anticipated. This can be done with little more than one fine sentence. Olive Kitteridge did surprise me — and it kept surprising me — but in only a couple of pages I was no longer surprised at how well the book was written and about how compelling were the subjects written about. It is one of the few books in recent memory that I wanted to keep reading when I finished.
Set up much like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, this book is a series of vignettes involving the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine. However, unlike those two classic works, Olive Kitteridge is not centered on “community” as part of the theme. Rather, all of the stories revolve around Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher, the most scary teacher at the school. Through her and the community’s perspective on her, Strout examines life’s building disappointments that make it, at once, unbearable and unbearably painful to see pass so quickly (“The spring was gorgeous, and seemed an assault.”).
We get the sense that Olive has always been an abrasive woman, but over the years life has not met her expectations and she’s loaded down by an unconfronted guilt due to her own failure to meet others’ expectations. So, always sarcastic, she is frequently bitter, especially to those she loves. Her husband Henry — from whose point of view we get the first, pleasantly lonely story — was a pharmacist whose best time of day was when he left home to go to work:
The ritual was pleasing, as though the old store — with its shelves of toothpaste, vitamins, cosmetics, hair adornments, even sewing needles and greeting cards, as well as red rubber hot water bottles, enema pumps — was a person altogether steady and steadfast. And any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their home in the night’s dark hours — all this receded like a shoreline as he walked through the safety of his pharmacy.
This first story roams back and forth in time, giving us a foundational perspective on Olive and Henry, pre- and post-retirement. Strout has a master’s touch at craft, and the time shifts are seamless and as rhythmic as an ocean:
Autumn now, November, and so many years later that when Henry runs a comb through his hair on this Sunday morning, he has to pluck some strands of gray from the black plastic teeth before slipping the comb back into his pocket.
Strout is also masterful in her portrayal of psychology. I was particularly impressed and drawn in by the quiet way Strout conveys the psychological brutality emanating from (mostly, but not always) the women characters — to their husbands, to their children, to the other brutal women. This feminine brutality is perhaps surprising to those who think that a woman author always defends — or should always defend — her own sex. It is offset somewhat by some psychologically brutal males. However, even while showing this brutality, Strout succeeds in helping us empathize with the characters. We might not accept their actions — we might even despise them sometimes — but we usually understand where they are coming from. Often it spawns from a great love or fear of losing love or fear of loving again. As adept as she is in conveying this brutality, Strout is just as adept at using minute details, written in a reverent (beautiful) rhythm, at conveying loneliness:
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.
It is in these painful revelations that we come to love Olive, despite her flaws. She is not the only person suffering from pain revealed in quiet subtleties. Here are three quick examples (each from a different episode); look:
The fact that their newly baked scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad; a soft dismallness settled over her. The doctor had said to them, For three months you are not to even think of it.
But this turbulence in him was torture. He thought how yesterday morning in New York, as he’d walked to his car, he had for one moment not seen it. And there was that prick of fear, because he’d had it all planned and wrapped up, and where was the car? But there it was, right there, the old Subaru wagon, and then he knew what he’d felt had been hope. Hope was a cancer inside him. He didn’t want it; he did not want it.
He was the only person she’d ever told that her mother had taken money from men.
I was consistently in awe at Strout’s ability with language and style. There was not a single time in the 270 pages where her prose caused me to stumble, and as beautiful as it was it never stood out any more than what it was saying. It was always clear, painfully clear, showing the confusing beauty that is life.