Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: Olive Kitteridge

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

This book is a masterpiece. I’m hardly the first to come to that conclusion, but it’s nice to be able to declare that it holds up a decade or so after it made its big waves. The separate stories are all powerful, and they complement each other. We get one glimpse after another of the quiet, sad, and beautiful lives of these people, and then those glimpses come together to form a larger whole. As one line puts it, “People mostly did not know they were living life while they were living it.”

I think a relevant comparison here is Joyce’s Dubliners. If this one is less self-consciously revolutionary in its narrative and less ambitious in the swath of human life that it measures, it still finds a way of setting one slice of its subject alongside another. It gives us a city – or a small town – in a way that linear narrative could not. It presents us with fracture in order that we might see the whole.

It’s easy to dislike Olive herself. Whether she stands as the main character of a particular story or as a figure moving through the background of someone else’s, she comes across as edgy and bitter. The Yiddish is “frebisn,” but Yiddish hardly seems to apply in a Maine so apple-cider New England that you think you see Robert Frost’s footsteps in the crushed maple leaves at the edge of the frame. We have character after character – or more properly relationship after relationship since everyone comes to us either yearning for a new partner or assessing whether to stay with the partner she or he has – trying to deal with disappointment or lack of fulfillment. These aren’t people who turn readily to language; they’re self-reliant and stubborn, but they’re resilient too.

I find myself liking Olive’s husband Henry quite a lot. He absorbs Olive’s unhappiness and, as one character remarks almost in surprise, he loves her. Then [SPOILER] when he dies, Olive slowly discovers that she has the capacity to care for others. Her years as a frightening high school teacher have taught her to intimidate almost everyone, but her twilight love affair is deeply moving and a quietly beautiful way to wrap this up.

As great as this is, I fear I have read it at the wrong time, though. With a divisive election still so fresh, I think I’m hungry more for anger, irony, or fantasy. This offers, instead, a quiet and sad beauty. It’s a grown up novel – grown up in the best of ways – and I’m feeling very adolescent right now. The fact that I admired it (and, yes, enjoyed when I could give it the attention it requires) at such a moment further underscores its power. In a less tumultuous moment, this would probably shine even more than it does now.

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