Saturday, August 30, 2008
Review: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
I remember reading and liking Strout's first novel, Amy and Isabelle, around the time that it came out. But Strout's new book, Olive Kitteridge: Fiction, made a much bigger impact on me. Olive Kitteridge is not a novel, but a book of thirteen short stories, linked by the character of Olive Kitteridge, a cranky middle school math teacher in a small town in Maine. Some of the stories are from Olive's point of view, others are about other characters in the town who have some relationship, large or small, with Olive, and the stories span a time period from Olive's youth to her old age.
I really admire Strout's writing--it's economical, yet gorgeous, and she has real insight into the human condition. She uses small details to create scenes of great emotional power. Her characters are complicated, and though they live small-town lives, they deal with all the big issues--suicide, addiction, loss, bad marriages, miscommunication--really, the gamut of human issues.
Strout paints us a nuanced picture of Olive, and of the community she lives in, by telling us stories that center not just on Olive, but on the people around Olive; her husband, son, and neighbors. We see Olive's misanthropic, difficult, angry side, and we also see how, as a strong woman and teacher, she has strengthened those around her. Olive is a great character because we both love and hate her; we identify with her and yet abhor many of her actions. And what's brilliant about this book is that the small, seemingly disparate portions add up to a vibrant whole--for example, a particular story may only have a tiny bit about Olive in it, but that tiny incident will inform some action of Olive's later in the book.
The book is definitely dark. It deals with a foiled suicide attempt, anorexia, adultery, prostitution, illness and death. Small town Maine, as depicted here, seems to be a world that knows the dark side, though it is not without hope. But the sadness feels emotionally honest, and I know many such stories really exist in small towns, as elsewhere. And even though the book was sad, it was compelling, and I really enjoyed every page, and highly recommend it. I'll definitely put Strout's earlier novel, Abide With Me, on my TBR list.