Monday, July 20, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

So the other day I ran into Tim at Satura’s and after we had talked for a while we both headed over to Borders. I was looking for one book in particular, which they didn’t have, but Tim was browsing on their rack of featured books and he turned and asked me if I had read this one. I went over and looked at it, a yellow paperback entitled Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I hadn’t, but the blurbs indicated that it was a novel told in thirteen linked short stories, and there was a sticker indicating it had won the Pulitzer Prize, so I told Tim I’d take a crack at it.

That turned out to be a good move. It’s a terrific book, although not one that I would recommend to every reader. The main character, Olive herself, is a woman of late middle age who might be quite accurately be described with a term I have not heard in active use since I was in grade school myself: an old battle axe. She’s a big woman, a formidable woman, a judgmental and opinionated and often angry woman. One of the considerable accomplishments of this book is that the author manages to make Olive, and the many complex and often deeply scarred characters who surround her, an object first of fascination and ultimately of sympathy.

Elizabeth Strout depicts Olive using very tightly controlled third-person narrative that allows us access to the movements of her thoughts in a very subtle way. Here she is, for example, escaping for a moment into a bedroom for a quick rest on the afternoon of her son’s wedding:

Olive’s dress—which is important to the day, of course, since she is the mother of the groom—is made from a gauzy green muslin with big reddish-pink geraniums printed all over it, and she has to arrange herself carefully on the bed so it won’t wind up all wrinkly, and also in case someone walks in, so she will look decent. Olive is a big person. She knows this about herself, but she wasn’t always big, and it still seems something to get used to. It’s true she has always been tall and frequently felt clumsy, but the business of being big showed up with age; her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and wrists and hands seemed to become the size of a man’s. Olive minds—of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game, she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat, dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage. But the dress worked out well, she reminds herself, leaning back and closing her eyes. Much better than the dark, grim clothes the Bernstein family is wearing, as though they had been asked to a funeral, instead of a wedding, on this bright June Day. (62)

The passage reveals a lot about Olive’s ambivalent feelings about her own situation: her size, her masculinity, the look of the dress itself, as well as her more acidly one-dimensional criticism of the poor Bernsteins, who after all were only trying to do their best as well. Olive is frequently willing, as most of us are, I suppose, to forgive her own limitations (“at this stage of the game, she is not about to abandon the comfort of food”) even when she is unwilling to forgive the trespasses of others. Much later in the book, after an emotionally challenging episode, Olive finds herself out walking in the park, and her thoughts, although much different in content, are revealing in much the same way:

A bright haze hung over the river, so you could barely make out the water. You couldn’t even see too far ahead on the path, and Olive was consistently startled by the people who passed by her. She was here later than usual, and more people were out and about. Next to the asphalt pathway, the patches of pine needles were visible, and the fringe of tall grasses, and the bark of the shrub oaks, the granite bench to sit on. A young man ran toward her, emerging through the light fog. He was pushing before him a triangular –shaped stroller on wheels, the handles like those on a bicycle. Olive caught sight of a sleeping baby tucked inside. What contraptions they had these days, these self-important baby boomer parents. When Christopher was the age of that baby, she’d leave him napping in his crib, and go down the road to visit Betty Simms, who had five kids of her own—they’d be crawling all over the house and all over Betty, like slugs stuck to her. Sometimes when Olive got back, Chris would be awake and whimpering, but the dog, Sparky, knew to watch over him. (157)

Here is a woman who is bitterly dismissive of “these self-important baby boomer parents” to whom it has apparently not occurred that there might be something just the least bit odd about leaving her baby at home to be watched over by her dog.

But Olive has another side to her as well, a reflective, appreciative, even philosophical side that emerges most often when she is alone, as in this passage, again at the park:

There was beauty to that autumn air, and the sweaty young bodies that had mud on their legs, strong young men who would throw themselves forward to have the ball smack against their foreheads; the cheering when a goal was scored, the goalie sinking to his knees. There were days—she could remember this—when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure. Maybe it was the purest she had, those moments on the soccer field, because she had other memories that were not pure. (162)

There are many stories and many characters in this book, and it’s a book with virtues beyond the stylistic expertise I have made note of here. Many of the stories take sudden and dramatic turns into completely unexpected territory, and there are several scenes which are true and beautiful and yet very painful to read. So it’s a visceral, often disorienting book. But I thought it was terrific.