Sunday, 29 December 2013
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman. She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial: she makes a positive difference to many lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and they are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting: her frustration with their good natured compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories; each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant, who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake; the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioned it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’ Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment, and it falls to Olive to try to save the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the poor widow’s face and self-respect.
Which begs the question: why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?
Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers. And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character; outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice; an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence. Olive is simply superb, and I hope you will meet her soon.