31 Oct Olive Kitteridge
I have to admit, I wasn’t overly intrigued by the premise of this book by Elizabeth Strout: a retired teacher deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine yet fails to recognize changes in the people around her, including her husband and only child. Then there are her fellow townspeople, all of them ordinary folks—like Olive—leading gloriously imperfect lives.
It’s about the passage of time, including dreams that die, relationships that fail, and bodies that betray. Yet there are snippets of joy and endless pearls of wisdom interwoven with unforgettable moments of sorrow. As Oprah magazine so aptly said, “Olive is the axis around which thirteen complex, relentlessly human narratives spin themselves.”
She’s a most unassuming protagonist. Often I wasn’t sure whether I loved her, with her witty, unflinching honesty and no apologies approach to life, or hated her, with her downright mean temperament, egocentric view of the world, and unappealing inability to apologize to the people she routinely wounds. She is fully aware what they think of her, outrageously critical of them, entirely perceptive about life, and very often beyond redemption as the controlling, cranky, old lady, yet…there is something about her that you can’t help but applaud. She’s sassy and smart as hell and even though she is infuriating, I found myself rooting for her.
Perhaps because Olive is so unsentimental about life, I didn’t find this novel depressing. Sad, yes—depressing, not really—because love is still the most powerful emotion conveyed in the book.
Love makes Henry, Olive’s kind husband, loyal; it stops a man from killing himself; it removes a daughter from her dysfunctional home; it even opens Olive’s eyes to something more, later in life.
Ironically, while Olive is almost entirely without empathy, this book absolutely inspires that emotion in the reader. Every character has a worthy story, often including life not quite meeting expectations. It’s all rather ordinary. Yet the characters are so incredibly well drawn, the author’s insight and spectacular writing so meaningful, this book just might change readers. It certainly made me want to live life to the fullest, avoiding the apathy, insecurity, and failure to fulfill self that so many of Strout’s characters endured.
The author has the uncanny ability to get into character the way a brilliant actor does on screen and I will certainly look for more from this gifted writer.
Now an HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand and a cast of similarily brilliant actors, I think it might have to be our next watch.