Saturday, September 5, 2009

On "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout *****

I came to this book reluctantly. Sure, it won the Pulitzer, but other books have won that prestigious award and still managed not to totally inthrall me. Sure, it's a short story cycle, a genre I love. Sure, it was recommended to me--not by one person but by three. But it was about a crabby old lady. It didn't sound like my kind of text. Neither, said one of the recommenders, did it sound like my kind of text to me. So I read it, and boy am I glad I did. This is one of the most enjoyable collections of stories I've read, one of the best new discoveries to come before me in the past few years.

Ostensibly a cycle of stories about Olive Kitteridge--the crabby old lady noted above--this collection somehow managed to make me care or at least enjoy getting to know this woman. Granted, I would never want to know her in real life. She's overbearing, selfish, mean. She's also, at times, caring--but the bad seems to outweigh the good, much as such does in many of Flannery O'Connor's characters (a writer whose stories, somehow, I've by and large never managed to come to love). Also, in the level of detail with which Strout writes, I'm reminded of Alice Munro, and yet again I am a big fan of these stories about Olive, whereas for all her skill I usually find Munro's work a tad boring.

Two things pull me to this collection. First, the stories are often hilarious--or at least moments in the stories are, just as those moments are so incredibly unpredictable. Second, the stories--the best ones at least--leave me shuddering at the end. To be sure, some stories I merely shrugged at, but probably half of them gave my heart a little pitter pat when I got to the end.

Take the first two stories, "Pharmacy" and "Incoming Tide." The first is a quiet story about Olive's husband Henry's female coworker. This isn't one of those stories that made me say Wo! at the end, but what I liked about it was how through the various subtle details, we got a vision of Olive, on the sidelines, as the jealous wife. Sure, it was Henry's story, but the little nuances that were Olive's made this a piece to admire. Next, we see Olive through the eyes of a man who is readying to commit suicide. Here, Olive comes across simultaneously as a tedious bully and as a wonderfully caring person. It's not that Olive tries to talk the man into living. The man never opens up about what he is on the verge of doing. It's that she is so a part of her own world that she never even seems to notice the emotional stress that the man is in. But she does notice someone else, and it is Olive's concern for this someone else who in the end saves this other man's life.

Strout is at her best, though, when we get into Olive's head. And Olive, when we're in her head, is even less sympathetic in most cases than when we see her from outside. In the hilarious "A Little Burst" we watch Olive because some jealous of her new daughter-in-law's relationship with her son that she commits an act--and commits to acting in a way--that is sure to undermine her son's marriage. One is shocked. In "A Different Road," Olive forces her husband to drop her off at an emergency room so that she can take a pee and ends up somehow in the middle of stickup, during which she and her husband--at gunpoint--get into one of the funniest arguments I've ever heard. The results are, to be sure, disastrous.

1 comment:

Liana Krissoff said...

Thanks for recommending this. I read it last week, not expecting to like a book about a retired math teacher in Maine of all places, but then I couldn't put it down. I don't think I ever laughed reading it, but it was so heartbreaking and tender it made me happy to be living and reading.