Title: Olive Kitteridge
Rating: 5 Stars
Many years ago, I realized that I wasn’t reading a whole lot of modern American fiction. Being a somewhat list driven person, I thought about ways to rectify the situation and decided that I’d focus on the Pulitzer prize winners for fiction. I ended up reading most of the winners going back to the mid 1960s. It was an interesting exercise because, although there were certainly some high quality reads, some of them, looking back in time, seemed slight and even now I’m somewhat curious regarding the selection process.
This was many years ago. Occasionally I check the Pulitzer list and try to catch myself up a bit. For that reason, Olive Kitteridge ended up on my reading list. Since I had no other compelling reason to read it and really didn’t know anything about it, I had at best modest expectations. I was expecting something along the lines of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
This is one of those occasions where all expectations were exceeded. From a quick review, I was expecting a set of short stories about life in a small town in Maine. Most assuredly, this is the setting of the stories. I was expecting some kind of quaint, possibly gentle, series of vignettes of small town living. I was thinking maybe a Yankee version of Lake Woebegon.
I couldn’t have been wider of the mark. The stories are deceptively gentle and simple, but nearly each one contains a bite.
This edge shows most clearly in Olive Kitteridge. She is the common thread running throughout all of the stories. In some cases, she makes a minor, passing appearance. In others she is the center.
Olive is a fascinating character. On the one hand, she is intimidating. She is large, fierce, and ruthlessly pragmatic. She is a retired math teacher that most students were quite terrified of. However, in one story, seeing a struggling young girl wasting away due to anorexia, Olive breaks down into tears and successfully begs her to get treatment. She is curt with her husband, but loves him in her way, can’t believe that such a wonderful man would marry such a beast (as she calls herself), and visits him daily after he has a stroke that renders him nearly unresponsive. However, even within this odd but happy marriage there are moments when both Olive and her husband (Henry) separately have bouts of doubt and fall in love with another.
A major theme here seems to be secrets. Looking at this little village from a distance, everyone seems to be living somewhat happy, if mundane, lives. Scratch a bit below the surface and you see exposed so much more. There is infidelity, anorexia, suicide, murder, abandonment, and other violence.
Nearly each story starts off with what appears to be a somewhat predictable path but then veers off in some completely unexpected direction. An example of this is Basket of Trips. A man has just died and everyone has gathered together. The widow (Marlene) is grief stricken but appears to be holding up nicely. Although Marlene’s husband is dead, her children are grown and appear happy. Despite the grief, Marlene appears steadfast. One of her close friends that’s also her cousin (Kerry) has a bit too much to drink. Marlene takes Kerry up to her room. When Olive goes to check on them, Kerry is passed out drunk on the bed and Marlene is sitting next to her. When Olive walks up to Marlene, Marlene looks up to Olive and says that she wants to kill Kerry. She is holding a knife.
Not exactly what I was expecting! Most of the stories take turns like this. Although their styles are completely different, as I was reading this, I was reminded of Ottessa Moshfegh, specifically her collections of stories called Homesick of Another World. Moshfegh’s characters are definitely way more out on the fringe than Strout’s, but in both cases, the characters regularly make unexpected choices that lead them far from the beaten path.
Since one of my favorite things reading literature is to be surprised, this set of stories consistently met the bill. It’s one of the strongest collections that I’ve read in a while.