Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 2008

Really this should be titled Olive Kitteridge, et al. The miscellaneous stories that weave in and mostly out of Olive’s life give enough gloom and angst to keep me from ever moving to a small seaside town. Vignettes ranged from high drama of involvement in an armed robbery to the  crumbling dissolve of a marriage the night of a Christmas musical concert. At times it felt like Desperate Housewives gone literary. Strout perhaps had a folder of unused short stories with distressed misfits that somehow she felt hellbound to use. To our advantage, probably.

It’s an easy read with words that seventh graders would understand written with the gravity of plutonium aimed at your life. If you don’t find the skeleton of at least one dysfunctional relationship you have had, my unasked for opinion is that you probably haven’t looked too deeply at how you emotionally operate. Okay, I’ll give you a break. It may not be you, it may be the other person. But, still.

There is an astounding vocabulary for pain. Once it was loneliness as a lesion on a woman’s face, another time a gripping sickening need. It was anorexia, arson, or pretending words weren’t said, an unfolding pinecone and another time it was a smile (maybe the only smile in the whole book) when an old boyfriend maliciously tells of sleeping with Mom.

Strout is unexcelled in being a great story teller starter. She started so many I couldn’t remember them all though I felt the accumulated sadness and despair. It was disappointing more of them didn’t have a story continuation. The end of the book is perhaps the basis of this oversight as Olive realizes the simplicity of need that continues through life for all of us, but I wonder: how did Olive get out of being strong armed in airport security? That could have been  the one comic scene. Did she attend her husband’s funeral? What happened to Daisy? Did Harmon pine away? Was poor Angie a survivor after that night? Now who was Molly? And the story of Rebecca seemed like chatter overload after so much pain in the book was left unattended, unanswered, unsolved, unredeemed. Still, it is a Pulitzer Prize winner and I understand why, as it breaks many of the rules of story arc and bringing things to a tidy ending. It is a relentlessly well-written pain of life without the answers we wish were available to us. All very literary.


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