Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition, 304pp, $14
Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and a blizzard of well-deserved accolades. (Amazon, alone, has published over 200 reader reviews!) So why review the book now, well after every major media outlet has issued a rave review? Certainly, everyone with any literary curiosity (and sufficient back bone) has already read the book.
Several reasons. First, the book is set in Maine; a rural coastal town full of Mainers and a few from away...fishermen, pharmacists, middle school math teachers (Olive, herself) and some summer people. Author Strout was born in Maine and graduated from Bates College. According to Robert Birnbaum of The Mourning News she is proud of her New England background. "That pride, as well as comfort with the ways and world-views of her origins, comes to play in her fine recent novel." article link here
So, it might just be possible that there may be someone in my New England audience who hasn't yet read the book and that would be a shame. Olive Kitteridge is a tough book, no doubt about it. It is dark. Strout's characters suffer mightily in their small lives. But the book is also close to a miracle, full of small wonders and delicate confirmation of the beauty of life, the world and effervescent bright spots of human experience. Strout has woven an elegant argument of affirmation from the lives of the people of Crosby, Maine.
The novel consists of 13 interrelated stories about town the residents. Olive Kitteridge, a 73 year old, over-sized and overly opinionated retired seventh grade math teacher is the unifying figure who appears with varying significance in all stories. She is married to sweet-natured and even tempered Henry, the pharmacist. (He keeps his own personal nightmares well caged and out of play.) Every morning he drives to work. "The ritual was pleasing, as though the old store...was a person altogether steady and steadfast. And any unpleasantness that might have occurred back home...receded like a shoreline as he walked through the safety of his pharmacy. Henry was cheerful when the phone began to ring..." Henry is like an anchor to windward for the whole town.
Angie, daughter of a woman "who took money from men," is a gifted, self-taught, piano player at the local bar and grill. She is grinding through a 22 year relationship with an abusive married man and needs vodka to play in public. But on the night in question, she has been "in the music...her fingers reaching deeply into it...sometimes when she played it was like being a sculptress...pulling at the lovely thick clay...inside the music she understood many things..." and this night she ends the relationship.
Nina is a 23 year old transient, left behind by a local boy when he blew town once again. She's anorexic. Harmon is the owner of the local hardware store. His long marriage had become routine. His wife had told him she was "done with that stuff." None of his three grown sons is interested in taking over the hardware store. Daisy is a childless widow who lives in a sunny cottage near the harbor. She pleasures Harmon, briefly. Now they are friends and when he thinks of their friendship..."it was as though a lightbulb glowed in a town where nighttime came swiftly..."
Daisy takes in the girl and Harmon helps where he can. "God, I love young people...People like to think the younger generation's job is to steer the world to hell. But it's never true, is it? They're hopeful and good and that's how it should be," he says.
Olive drops in and observes the starving girl, calls it as she sees it... "You're starving...I'm starving, too...why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight? ...I don't know who you are, young lady, but you're breaking my heart." Nina whispers, "I don't want to be like this." Harmon realizes that what Nina fears is "being without love. Who didn't fear that?" When Nina dies, Harmon is a changed man. "Some skin that had stood between himself and the world seemed to have been ripped away and everything was close, and frightening," and he see his lone customer, the town's old maid, differently now. "He saw her loneliness as a lesion on her face...Only the young, he thought, could with stand the rigors of love, except for Nina and it seemed to him all inside out that he had been handed the baton by her. Never, never, never give up." He is waiting for surgery to quiet his heavily pounding heart.
The stories themselves are frequently tragic, often sad and only occasionally uplifting but it is not the stories themselves, or even the characters, deftly drawn as they are, rather, it is the small light of comfort that Strout's characters find in others, in the natural world and occasionally within themselves that I see as the most remarkable aspect of the book.
Olive sums it up, realizing on the final page that she had experienced a platter of goodness in Henry but that "she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered."