Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: Olive Kitteridge

I started Olive Kitteridge with great skepticism: a series of short stories as a novel did not sound like a smooth, cohesive story.  However, within a dozen pages I was glad it was nearly midnight because I would have called Carole to ask her why she hadn't forced me to start the book sooner.

Elizabeth Strout creates an incredible level of intimacy necessary for this kind of tale, where readers meet the title character through rumor, reputation, association and in person.  She is not all that likable, especially at first; in fact, throughout "Pharmacy," I actively wondered why the gentle and loving Henry was married to her in the first place. However, to be fair, she was seen through the filter of his perception, and there was a very stark contrast between his life at the pharmacy and his life at home.

Not until the second story, "Incoming Tide," did I actually find any redemptive, or even likable, qualities to Olive.  It was then, when a reader could see her in her own terms, did she start to make sense.  She was no longer distorted by the prism of her home life; we could see the bigger picture.

It was in this second story that I decided I really, really liked Olive.  As the stories progressed, readers witnessed the ebb and flow of her ideas, her emotions, her generosity, her fears, her defenses — sometimes through the spectrum of the others around her, sometimes through her own perspective.

Olive is not central to every story.  While sometimes she is a major character, other times she is in the distance, someone another resident of Crosby, Maine, sees walking across the street, or remembers from a previous encounter. 

The others we meet in Crosby are interesting, delightful, compelling, vexing, heartbreaking, heartbroken, misunderstood, self-absorbed, confused, struggling.  Denise is a waif of a girl who faces a life she never expected or would have chosen.  Kevin never really left Crosby.  Harmon's entry into middle age hasn't brought with it the riches he expected.  Nina hated Muffin Luke, but for all of the wrong reasons.  Christopher — well, Christopher is much like his mother, complex and initially unlikeable.  I remain ambivalent about this character, more so than others who surprised and discomfited me, like Ann Kitteridge or Louise Larkin.

I was intrigued by the relationships, especially the marriages.  Olive's relationship with Henry intrigued me. I've always been fascinated by what makes a marriage, and having that insight into Olive and Henry's relationship was fascinating. As the story evolved, I didn't always understand what made them work together, but they did. In contrast, "Winter Concert" showed a "perfect" marriage that was so different, and yet perhaps not as successful as Olive and Henry's; the Kitteridges survived "A Different Road," and I wonder if Bob and Jane could have done the same. There were other marriages, successful and/or not: Harmon and Bonnie, Chris and Suzanne, Chris and Ann, and a few we experience at or after the "end."  (As we learn in Crosby, death does not always bring a marriage to a close.)

All 13 stories are told in chronological order, which I liked.  Some stories were longer than others, but the shorter ones were no less important; some connections require no more than a skip and no preamble.  It's not a traditional novel, so not all of the stories smoothly flow into each other, but each has its place and makes sense in the quilt Strout stitched together.

I enjoyed this book and can heartily recommend it.

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