Elizabeth Strout's new novel-in-stories, "Olive Kitteridge," draws a rich portrait of a difficult woman with some surprising twists to her character. Strout reads at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on April 15.
by Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 270 pp., $25
In both “Amy and Isabelle” and “Abide with Me,” novelist Elizabeth Strout created characters and situations familiar to everyone: a mother and daughter estranged because of the girl’s inappropriate relationship with a teacher; a father undone by his wife’s death, unable to care for his children or his work.
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These are people who live on any street in any town in the USA. Strout sets her stories in New England; the title character of her new novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” lives in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine.
Olive is a retired elementary school math teacher, and her husband is a pharmacist. They have one son, Christopher. In 13 short stories that form a fully realized novel, we come to know Olive as a cranky, sarcastic, dismissive sourpuss. Make no mistake: This is no crusty heroine with a heart of gold. Olive’s heart can be as black as her tongue is tart, but there are times when she’ll surprise you with her compassion. In “Incoming Tide,” for example, she insinuates herself into a former student’s life by sitting, unbidden, in his car, until he changes his mind about something he is contemplating.
Olive is not maternal, by anyone’s standards. Strout muses, “When Christopher was the age of that baby, she’d leave him napping in his crib, and go down the road to visit Betty Simms … Sometimes when Olive got back, Chris would be awake and whimpering, but the dog, Sparky, knew to watch over him.” She is unable to demonstrate her love for him in any convincing way, but is devastated when he marries and moves away.
In “A Little Burst,” she shows just what deviltry she is capable of on Chris’ wedding day. Her prank is surreptitious, so she cannot be blamed — and it’s a beaut.
At the heart of the novel is Olive’s relationship with her husband, Henry, unfailingly kind and long-suffering. Both Henry and Olive have touching and complicated liaisons outside their marriage; one chaste, one not so. Ultimately, this seemingly cold unloving woman sits at the bedside of her stricken husband day after endless day, trying to make his life in a nursing home more bearable. When she goes to visit their son, she calls him every night, even though he cannot speak, just to fill him in on her day.
Elizabeth Strout has drawn an indelible portrait of a difficult woman whose life is fraught with disappointment, some of it self-inflicted. Despite all, she can penetrate the hearts and souls of others, bringing sweet relief and comfort to those who despair of their own lives. Olive is a richly drawn, multidimensional woman capable of surprising herself and the reader.