Monday, December 21, 2009

Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

A good friend gave me this book--a friend whose literary tastes always exceed my own, and so I feel I must read her selections when I am in a brave and intellectual mood. The front cover warned me that the book had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (see the list of titles since 1948 here) and hinted that Oprah liked it (indeed, it was one of her beach reads last year)--two warning bells for sure. The book is a collection of short stories, some of them previously published. And if reviewers agree on one word to describe Olive, it's "unlikeable" (if you doubt me, google Olive Kitteridge unlikeable and you can take your pick of them).

Oddly, I liked the book anyway, and I think you might too.

I didn't like Olive, at least not at first. Who could? She is a rude, sarcastic, abusive force of nature. She's also very funny.
Olive had refused to go to church the day before, and Henry, uncharacteristically, had spoken to her sharply. "Is it too much to ask," he had found himself saying, as he stood in the kitchen in his undershorts, ironing his trousers. "A man's wife accompanying him to church?" Going without her seemed a public exposure of familial failure.

"Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!" Olive had almost spit, her fury's door flung open. "You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher's homework with him! And you--" She had grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night's disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. "You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!" Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. "Well, I'm sick and tired of it," she'd said, calmly. "Sick to death."

Don't tell me, Female Readers Married to Holy Men, you've never had similar thoughts. Not that you'd have put them quite that way, of course. That's the beauty of Olive: she'll stride right out of your mucky old id and tell it like it is. Loudly. Which makes her off-putting, inadvertently hilarious, and rather touchingly sensitive, since nobody much likes her (imagine!).

Olive is complex, and one of the joys of reading this book is seeing her from all sides. A former math teacher, she has earned the respect, if not the love, of many of her acquaintances. In one story, "Incoming Tide," she gently and perceptively saves a former student from self-destruction.

Another of the book's delights is the cast of genuine characters in Olive's little town of Crosby, Maine--think Flannery O'Connor people in a cold climate. Many of the stories are about them, with Olive making only an incidental appearance.

Best of all, I think, is watching Olive grow older and wiser without ever losing her cynicism. Turns out she didn't dislike Henry nearly as much as you might think from the first chapter. Halfway through the book he has a stroke and has to go to the nursing home. Olive is devastated.
She didn't like to be alone. Even more, she didn't like being with people.

It made her skin crawl to sit in Daisy Foster's tiny dining room, sipping tea. "I went to that damn dopey grief group," she told Daisy. "And they said it was normal to feel angry. God, people are stupid. Why in hell should I feel angry? We all know this stuff is coming. Not many are lucky enough to just drop dead in their sleep."

"People react in their own way, I guess," Daisy said, in her nice voice. She didn't have anything except a nice voice, Olive thought, because that's what Daisy was--nice. To hell with all of it. She said the dog was waiting, and left her teacup still full.
Olive is not nice, not in her middle years, not when she is old. Nice is not Olive's style. But Olive becomes wise, at least in her own way.
What young people didn't know, she thought; ... oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again.... If her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
Thanks, Olive. You're unforgettable. And I'm really glad you aren't my mother-in-law.

1 comment:

jim Gordon said...

Now that's a good way to review a book! Making the unlikeable likeable. Many a time I would have welcomed Olive to do what Flannery O'Connor said Karl Barth did - "throw the furniture around".
Hope you have a Christmas with its fair share of peace, joy, hopefulness and occasionally, Olive's kind of fun.