Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2009
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer's eyes, it's in essence the whole world. The lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human dramas: desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.
At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn't always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive's own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.
As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life - sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition - its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.
Tart, sorrowful Olive Kitteridge is the moody battle-ax intersecting each of Elizabeth Strout's exquisitely spare new "novel in stories". Imperfect and struggling, Strout's characters grind through the dulling routines of ordinary domestic life in churchgoing Crosby, Maine: the drudgery of fixing supper night after night or shivering through a lukewarm show. They are awkward but authentic. "Patrick McCarthy...perspired so much that splotches of his shirt would be wet, at times even down over his breasts, so the poor fellow looked to be lactating," observes Strout.
Olive is a retired math teacher with the habit of saying "these weird things, very powerfully", which agitates her students, natch. Henry, her husband, is a gentle pharmacist who dispenses "pills and syrups and syringes" yet cannot cure his own wife's destructive eruptions. Their melancholy son, Christopher, grows into a distant teenager then a brittle adult. He inherits his mother's tormented relationship with depression.Olive and Henry don't anchor all 13 tales. Points of view shift, revealing a wistful lounge singer and the 11-year-old daughter of a cracked former beauty queen among them. Narrator Sandra Burr mostly nails the flat, dawdling Down East accent ("ayuh") of coastal Maine. She refines Olive's bluster by pitching her voice low and slow and growly, thus hinting at the despondency behind Olive's attacks. As for ponderous Henry, Burr permeates his dialogue with apologetic throat-clearings to channel how "inwardly, he suffered the quiet trepidations of a man who had witnessed twice in childhood the nervous breakdowns of a mother".
Burr isn't showy about her extraordinary range, though she easily could be. Olive Kitteridge thrives largely because she invests each character with distinguishable emotions. Nina White, anorexic and wasting into bones, begins all zippy teen inflection and finishes in subdued, unlit tones. Burr embodies Kevin, a young psychiatrist revisiting his mother's suicide, with the raw rasp of a hurting dude. The single misstep Burr makes in an otherwise faultless audio rendering is oozing too much buttery lilt as Jane, a housewife who kicks up her 75-year-old husband's adulterous betrayal in the midst of revived marital bliss.
Strout chronicles love, loss, infidelity, and aging within the cyclical framework of time passing. Christopher divorces, remarries, and fathers a child. Henry suffers a massive stroke, becomes paralyzed, then dies. Olive shows herself to be capable of deep kindness and vulnerability. When zonked by an unexpected romance with a widower while still grieving Henry, 74-year-old Olive puzzles, "Here they were...two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union - what pieces life took out you." And, with that, Olive Kitteridge's redemption becomes a fait accompli. Nita Rao
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Interweaving Short Stories Make a Good Novel
Absorbing collection of linked stories