Monday, September 21, 2009

Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

I read much of Olive Kitteridge on the dock outside my dad's house this August. I'd never read any Elizabeth Strout, but knew the book was set in Maine and won the Pulitzer Prize, so I thought it might be worth a try. As soon as I read the opening paragraph, I sighed happily, dangled my feet over the edge of the dock, and settled in:

"For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold." (You can read more of the first chapter at NPR.)
Olive Kitteridge is a collection of short stories that revolve loosely around a retired math teacher (Olive) and her fellow residents of Crosby, Maine. The book is a perfect example of my preferred lakeside reading: slow, exquisite, tinged with melancholy, and focused on all those intricate details that build the whole.

Elizabeth Strout's writing is compassionate and brutally honest. Her characters are complex. Like the rest of us, they succeed and fail and try to stumble on the best they can. Like the rest of us, they're not always likable. Olive herself is judgmental and prickly most of the time (though her husband, Henry, is awfully endearing). In moments as monumental as a hostage situation at the hospital, or as minute as going out for donuts, they grapple with longing and love, a sense of home and belonging, fear, trust, and sadness. Some pull through better than others.

There is a lot of sadness in Olive Kitteridge: lost love, illness, death. But I didn't come away from it feeling depressed or hopeless. I wondered about that for weeks after I read the book. How could it be? How did she do it? I think the answer is in this quote from an interview with Elizabeth Strout in the Kansas City Star:
"I’m most gratified when people say to me after reading the book, 'I see people differently now. I live in a small town. I understand life is more complicated.' I would like my work to be used as a vehicle for forgiveness, for understanding that everybody’s just human and most of us are trying to do the best we can. Certainly people will judge Olive, as well they should, but overall I hope the experience is to understand how rich life is, how good life is, and how imperfect we are."

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