Sunday, November 25, 2012

Life in a Small Town

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge  

by Elizabeth Strout


“Olive's private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as "big bursts" and "little bursts." Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee's, let's say, or the waitress at Dunkin' Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.” ― Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge 

This is a novel of contrasts: contrasting characters and contrasting stories. But the stories are linked thematically and by the character of Olive Kitteridge. It is Olive who,with her husband, is on center stage in the opening story. She makes a formidable contrast with her gentle, quietly cheerful husband Henry from the moment we meet them both in “Pharmacy,” which introduces us to several other denizens of Crosby, Maine. Though she was a math teacher before she and Henry retired, she’s not exactly patient with shy young people—or anyone else. Yet she brusquely comforts suicidal Kevin Coulson in “Incoming Tide” with the news that her father, like Kevin’s mother, killed himself. And she does her best to help anorexic Nina in “Starving,” though Olive knows that the troubled girl is not the only person in Crosby hungry for love. Children disappoint, spouses are unfaithful and almost everyone is lonely at least some of the time in Strout’s realistic and rueful tales. The Kitteridges’ son Christopher marries, moves to California and divorces, but he doesn’t come home to the house his parents built for him, causing deep resentments to fester around the borders of Olive’s carefully tended garden. Tensions simmer in all the families here; even the genuinely loving couple in “Winter Concert” has a painful betrayal in its past.
Elizabeth Strout deftly demonstrates these emotions in linked stories with beautiful precise prose that more often hints at the feelings and shows characters reacting with glances rather than stares. Olive's presence comes to be expected, but her encounters with other characters are never predictable. At times the stories were reminiscent of the estimable Sherwood Anderson's tales of Winesburg, Ohio; the prose evanescent but precise enough to suggest the pen of Connell or John Williams. The dangers of societies everywhere, aging, the loss of love, the imminence of death, are present in the stories of Crosby, Maine. This is the sort of novel you enjoy for the perceptive writing and the resonance with lives lived elsewhere. Olive brings more tartness than most titular characters, but as a reader I was enchanted with her stories and those of the people around her.

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