Elizabeth Strout, “Olive Kitteridge”

This book made me feel terrible for two reasons. 

First, it’s a sensitively-rendered series of interlocking tales about the sadness and splendor of everyday life in a tiny coastal town in Maine — rather more about the sadness. It’s beautifully written and artfully constructed. I haven’t read a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel in a while so I don’t know what the standards are, but this is top-notch. But it is very downbeat. (I’ll come back to the redemption part.) So that made me feel bad. Plus, Maine. New Englanders, with their prickly dignity, their guardedness, the bad weather, the limited options…. sigh. 

Second, I just didn’t like it. I just don’t enjoy those everyday-life books. I feel like I’m pretty much on top of the sorrows-and-splendors business and I don’t like reminders that the sorrows predominate. Also, we live everyday life. When it comes to reading, I’d rather be elsewhere. 

And, yeah, Olive Kitteridge is really, really good. The characters, especially the central character Olive, stuck with me. Thing is, she’s a complicated, bitter, difficult creature and I didn’t really like feeling that she was at my elbow all the time. Strout’s considerable achievement is to make Olive sympathetic despite her abrasive nature. She uses the various stories like pointillist dots of color, seeing Olive in different settings, at different ages, from different points of view. Putting the tales together, ordering them to reveal information and emotions in the right order, must have been very difficult.

It’s not entirely bleak. There are moments, tiny elusive moments of warmth, real contact, emotional connection. One of these occurs in the last pages of the last story. Which is good. You don’t want to go away with the taste of ashes in your mouth. But I will say that this gleam of hope is outweighed by a quite a few discussions of suicide (I’m not even counting the natural deaths). So the question I’m left with is — does Olive’s hope at the end outweigh the misery that preceded it?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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