Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout has concocted in this book a series of thirteen short stories, eponymously connected to the title character. Let me begin by giving you something akin to the one page synopsis that agents and publishers ask from aspiring writers:
Elizabeth enters from Crosby, Maine-first and foremost, as it turns out, as the wife of Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist. But she’s also a schoolteacher, or ex-schoolteacher, depending on your place in the story. Next in the Olive pantheon is her son, Christopher, a classic underachiever, who has fumbled his way through life successfully enough to become a podiatrist.
Olive is the stern, stoic sort one would invent as a Maine schoolteacher, but her irascibility hardly fits the mold of New England stereotypes. Mostly, however, she bites her tongue regarding the things that bother her: Henry’s all-too-forgiving nature with others, Chris’ laissez-faire attitude toward life. She grinds her molars at most everyone else, too, but we wouldn’t know it if it weren’t for Strout’s superbly constructed narrative, which lets us know what’s a-boil within Olive, the venomous frustration she randomly unleashes on those around her.
At the root of it, Olive is, of course, a deeply insecure person, which Strout masterfully charts, perhaps best depicted by her dismay as Chris klutzes his way through a first marriage and into another one that seems to work. It betrays nothing here to reveal that Henry dies, while Olive attempts to keep a brave face. If the reader doesn’t get Olive by then, he/she will when Olive submits near book’s end to a seventy-something , oh-so-cautious semi-romance with Jack Kennison, whose wife has also recently died. But as Olive steps cautiously with Jack from a dinner date to a few light meetings of the lips, she’s appalled to discover he’s a Republican, and dismayed that his daughter is a lesbian.
Okay, I think I detect a few perplexed looks out there in my readership, even a frown or two. I know, I know, this seems like family life in Everytown, USA. Perhaps Everytown, Earth. Common people doing common things: Projecting their failed aspirations onto their children, even their friends. Coping with a family death or two. And having affairs, the storyline chestnut popular since Grace Medalious’ Peyton Place, which took place, by the way, just down the road in New Hampshire.
Such banality is and has always been the stuff of modern day writers such as John Cheever, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Wallace Stegner. And Strout has the writerly chops necessary to make her anemic people and their lives glow entertainingly. She’s tweaking noses here, the noses of characters with little self-awareness, as they’re born, live, die. Her depictions of these folk are as capably handled as I’ve seen in print. Her prose is impeccable, her voice in this string of thirteen stories consistently forged. She’ll no doubt expand her audience with this book – she would have, I think, even without the prestigious Pulitzer – and her writing skills are as deserving as those of the above-mentioned literary lineup.
But something troubles me here:
Taking on such unimposing people and taking them through their ordinary paces seems all too easy somehow. Not to mention a trifle elitist. Yes, Strout manages her characters’ lives with a balance of sympathies: humor and pathos. But is her superbly capable treatment of such lives worth the effort of a novel?
Her audience will grow, because her audience surely reads largely for escape; insecurities and the petty life conditions that spawn such insecurities demand it. The US of A is full of people such as Olive and her fellow travelers. These people will read Strout’s book, will chuckle smugly in the certain knowledge that the author isn’t writing about them. Strout knows this, of course, knows these people will look into her mirror and fail to see themselves, which makes the latent snobbery here even more delicious.
But why not do more: force them to see? Why not construct extra-ordinary situations that will demand that these characters wake up, see their foibles, and begin the slow, agonizing process of correcting their flaws? Isn’t this what literature is supposed to be about, particularly humor, however subtle?
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t begrudge Strout her growing fame, her ability as a writer, nor the Pulitzer. As a writer, I’ve learned tons from her technique. But I can’t help but wonder what she might have made of bolder circumstances for her characters, of trying to tweak her readers’ noses a bit instead of those of her characters.
As I said, creating Olive Kitteridge seems all too easy somehow. It’s a gifted author playing it safe. And for a person of her obvious skills, this book seems to have a weak handle on the emotional integrity readers have a right to demand from writers if said writers are to pass literary muster.
My rating: 3 stars out of 5