How many pages into a book, before you know you’re hooked?
In the novel, “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, for me, it’s early in the first story, “Pharmacy,” when Henry Kitteridge has “moved off” Olive after the “act of loving” and she says, “Goodness.” Just that. Goodness! Later, when arguing with Henry, Olive slaps the napkin down hard against the table. Another time, “What in hell ails you Henry?” Straightforward, upfront, I’m hooked.
This study of a person living in a small town, where life is not perfect, is a work of art. It captures the fine grain of life that underpins the big things. Gossip, grief and betrayal are themes.
The writing ‘slow burns’ and then suddenly flares to make the point of the story. “A Little Burst,” begins with Olive’s private ruminations, and then “a screen door slams,” and her mood flips, peaking in strange acts of malice towards her new daughter-in-law. Another story, “Starving,” demonstrates her profound empathy. These flashes of passion illuminate stories of “wariness, a quiet anger” – a commonality observed between Olive and fellow schoolteacher Jim O’Casey.
The book is a collection of thirteen loosely linked vignettes set mostly in a small coastal town in Maine USA, some with Olive Kitteridge at centre stage, others with just a dry quip. “Have to know to keep your mouth shut,” she tells Denise over dinner in “Pharmacy.” Sometimes the spotlight shines on Olive, other times she’s just a shadow. In “Ship in a Bottle,” Julie quotes Mrs. Kitteridge one day having told her seventh-grade class, “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’re just one more ninny like everyone else.” Strong and forceful with her pupils, can she enact her own longing, desire, aspiration?
During the tumultuous trip to New York, in “Security,” Olive’s son, Christopher, and his second wife, Ann, show a tug-of-war longing to be connected with family while suffering under the demands of it.
Olive is a big woman of few words, sharp opinions and stormy moods. Not everyone likes her, but the stories challenge us to understand her. And as she ages and expresses her regrets there is gratitude. She does not have all the answers – “But there you were,” she concludes more than once. When the time comes, she wants to die quickly, but not yet!
I would definitely read this book again.