Review: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

May 1, 2011

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is a collection of beautiful, sad stories. What makes the so heartachingly beautiful is not the stories themselves, but the manner in which Strout records every feeling, expression and moment that her characters experience with her words, creating all but three-dimensional images of their inner lives.

The stories are not entirely new – there are few in this world that are – but Strout’s enchanting, simple yet expressive style is in its own class. The novel explores both the tragic and the comic in human lives with astuteness and honesty, with such talent for deriving meaning from the smallest detail. Many of the characters are observers, and Strout has talent for saying enough with a few simple close-ups of her characters:

“She was gazing out at the water, her denim jacket with its fake fur lining in the hood caused her head to thrust forward. “You’re smelling me, I know you are.” She made a small motion, perhaps to hit the boy lightly.”

The best of her novel, I would venture, is the way she describes marriage, the life-long bond between two people, with such sweetness and sorrow. The reader cannot help but feel both envy and pity for the characters who are able to preserve love as an ingredient in their marriage until – almost – the end.

“Earlier in their marriage, they’d had fights that had made Olive feel sick the way she felt now. But after a certain point in a marriage, you stopped having a certain kind of fight, Olive thought, because when the years behind you were more than the years in front of you, things were different.”

Olive and Henry Kitteridge have deep feelings for each other until the end – whether it is love or not, they cannot imagine their lives not tangled together. Henry cannot imagine his wife leaving her, even though he is aware that they have both had feelings for people other than each other. He himself feels strange, not entirely father-like affection for his young assistant Denise, even at his old age.

“He loved her guilelessness, he loved the purity of her dreams, but this did not mean of course that he was in love with her. The natural reticence of her in fact caused him to desire Olive with a new wave of power.” (11)

Another story gives us a glimpse into the lives of Jane and Bob Houlton, growing old together, and enjoying (almost) every minute of it:

“They had fun together these days, they really did. It was as if marriage had been a long, complicated meal, and now there was this lovely dessert.” (126)

But as much affection as they have for one another, the key to a happy marriage seems to be ignoring some of each other’s faults. Forgiveness, that word that Strout paints with every strike of her pen; that word that can only be understood with age and maturity.

“She took a deep, quiet breath and thought how she did not envy those young girls in the ice cream shop. Behind the bored eyes of the waitresses handing out sundaes there loomed, she knew, great earnestness, great desires, and great disappointments; such confusion lay ahead for them, and (more wearisome) anger; oh, before they were through, they would blame and blame and blame, and then get tired, too.” (139)

The ferociousness of love, the pain of loss that we all know in our own ways, the fear of loss – the fear of dying. The disappointments, the adjustments, the changes, the big and the small “bursts” that we all experience – all of this is depicted in these stories that Strout knits together, but above all, her words that flow and dance – and bring alive Olive, Henry, and all the rest, their deepest secrets and wishes depicted down to the quiver of their lip.

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