Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout (2008)

I love it when a book that doesn't look at all like something I would even remotely enjoy turns out to be a page-turning work of delight (just as conversely, I'm so disappointed, sad even, and sometimes angry, when a book that appears to be written specifically for me turns out to be boring or badly written).  Olive Kitteridge was recommended by my Goodreads friend Nick; my boss at work also raved about the book.  I completely understand why.  It was quite moving, sometimes heartbreaking, more than occasionally humorous, and really well written.

The setting, and the short stories with Olive either as a central character or peripheral character, reminded me of Sarah Orne Jewett.  Who couldn't read the book and not be reminded of Maine's second most famous writer (I suppose Stephen King would be first)?  I've read both Deephaven (which I absolutely loved) and Country of the Pointed Firs (which was powerful and quietly beautiful), and they also are essentially short stories loosely connected by time, place, and character.  I have no idea if this was on purpose or not, but I'm assuming so (I haven't yet done any additional reading of reviews or criticism of the book, but plan to).  Obviously Elizabeth Stout has the last century and a half of progressive change, and is able to write quite freely about the messy and dark bits of life - mental illness, divorce, growing older, death, infidelity.  But Jewett tackled tough subjects in the way the 19th century allowed writers (especially female writers) to do so - I remember stories about mental illness, and the two girls in Deephaven were lesbians (Boston marriage).  Jewett couldn't use the word "cunt", but I suppose if she were writing in 2008, she probably would have.  Stout used the word at least twice that I remember.

The other thing about the book, and I may have a harder time explaining this, is the sense of mythology, at least to me, that the book possessed.  Olive is almost like a goddess from a myth (a grumpy goddess, but a goddess just the same).  In a book of mythology, some stories about specifically about Venus, while Venus makes a brief appearance in other stories, there to move the plot along, to cause problems, to provide comfort, to be the boulder that turns the stream.  I'm not saying Olive is Venus (I chose a random goddess as example; she's more like Hera or Magna Mater, or Hel from Norse mythology perhaps, a crossbreed between all goddesses).  But Olive has a similar existence to a goddess in a book of mythology.   In some stories, she is the main character, we grow with her, watch her struggle, or observe and understand what's going on with her in ways she can't ("Security" is the best example of the reader as a knowledgeable observer who has more information than the main character).  In other stories, she provides comfort, or briefly appears as a wise elder with something pithy but important to impart.

Third point - infidelity is almost another character, and appears as a theme in several of these stories.

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love it when a book that doesn't look or sound like something I would even remotely enjoy turns out to be a page-turning delight.  Olive Kitteridge is deeply moving, often heartbreaking, more than occasionally humorous, and almost perfectly written.  A book of loosely connected short stories with a small Maine town as its setting can't not be compared to Sarah Orne Jewett (Deephaven; The Country of the Pointed Firs), and favorably so; it's like the Victorian sea-faring folk of Jewett's 19th century stories are brought into the 21st century, with the same warts and wens, laughter and tears. But these stories aren't merely carbon copies; Olive Kitteridge herself, whether the main character in a story, or a peripheral but important minor character, is a living, breathing, real person.  She's so unattractive, yet so brilliantly rendered and sympathetic.  We love her and hate her.  She's almost mythological in stature; like Venus or Hera (or the Norse Hel), she stars in some stories, and in others serves as a guide, a comfort, a boulder to turn a stream.  Like myths of old (and Jewett for that matter), Stout's stories deal with love and marriage, infidelity, murder, old age, death and dying.  Heavy stuff, but there is lightness here too.

View all my reviews

“But after a certain point in a marriage, you stopped having a certain kind of fight, Olive thought, because when the years behind you were more than the years in front of you, things were different.”  

From the NYT review,which I thought described Olive and the book really well:  "The main thing we learn about her is that she has a remarkable capacity for empathy, and it’s an empathy without sentimentality. She understands that life is lonely and unfair, that only the greatest luck will bring blessings like a long marriage and a quick death. She knows she’s been rotten; she has regrets. She understands people’s failings — and, ultimately, their frail hopes."  The highlighted line, I thought was particularly true, devastatingly so - this could be one of the themes of the book, certainly of some of the stories.

More from the NYT review:  Strout’s prose is quickened by her use of the “free indirect” style, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. “The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor” is a narrative statement — but “ridiculous” is very much Olive Kitteridge’s word. Similarly, in a description of a pianist, the clucking of communal disapproval creeps in: “Her face revealed itself too clearly in a kind of simple expectancy no longer appropriate for a woman of her age.” These moments animate Strout’s prose in the same way that a forceful person alters the atmosphere in a room.

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