Friday, December 04, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout's book Olive Kitteridge is irresistible. I really couldn't put it down, and that doesn't happen to me very often. A friend loaned it to me yesterday morning, and I've finished reading it.

Olive Kitteridge is a set of nearly independent stories about the people of a town in Maine. Sometimes the story is about Olive, but in some stories there's barely a single glimpse of her -- she appears at a party or a concert, and the character who is central to that story thinks about his or her reaction to Olive. So it's a composite picture of Olive from many points of view. Her students from her career as a junior-high school math teacher, other teachers and colleagues, people with stores in town, her son Christopher, her husband Henry, women that Henry is attracted to (but never is unfaithful with), men that she's attracted to (but never is unfaithful with) -- all see her, but never quite know what's going on to make her act as she does.

Olive is not likeable, but she's horrifyingly clear-sighted. What often makes her unlikeable or odd or gruff or moody is that she sees everything so clearly, and offends people by her reactions or by what she says. Some stories take place when she's younger, but most of the stories are about her late 60s and early 70s, when she's fat, unhappy with herself, and fully clear that everyone gets sick and dies in a depressing and often undignified way. She has no patience for euphemism or comfort on this topic, and is brusque if people treat her as a old woman or try to gloss over what she can't help seeing.

Vivid events and characters make the stories individually very readable and enjoyable. Every other story is inside the mind of a different character, alternating with stories of Olive herself. Each story, whatever its center, advances your understanding of Olive and how she seems to people. In contrast, another novel I read recently, Brooklyn, is 100% inside the mind of the main character, but is named Brooklyn because that's what it's really about, while this one is not about the town where events occur, but about a character who sometimes only pops up for a moment.

The most amazing story in the book (which my friend who loaned me the book also singled out) is about Olive's son's wedding. Olive can't stand the woman her son has chosen, but tries to act like a normal mother of the groom. However, she overhears people making snide remarks about the flower-patterned dress she made for the wedding. She snaps, and acts up -- among other things, she steals one shoe and a bra from the bride's closet. We follow her thought process as she goes through with her bizarre action, hiding the objects in her large purse under a piece of blueberry cake that she plans to enjoy alone -- she doesn't want to eat with all the other guests. I can't quite capture the unique quality of writing that makes this such a good story.

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