Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Ooooh, an adult book! This book contains a series of linked stories set in Maine, among the people who live in Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge is a woman in her seventies who moves through the stories - sometimes as a main character, sometimes only in the periphery. It should be noted that Olive is at times unlikeable and other times almost monstrous in the things she says, particularly to those who love her the most. The writing is precise and spare. The stories mainly concentrate on the personal tragedy that dwells in the ordinary occurences of our lives, and the ways that the bad things that happen to all of us are no less horrible and scarring just because they are mundane. It is when Strout concentrates on the power of the ordinary tragedy to stun and horrify that these stories are at their best. Occasionally, Strout wanders into the realm of sensation. She gives a glimpse at a family whose son killed someone (a lover? a friend? an acquaintance? the relationship is never delineated) by stabbing her 29 times. In another story, she catalogs the birth of a pyromaniac. It is in these stories that the collection falters. These sensational stories jarred me out of the book, reminding me that I was reading fiction. Otherwise, Strout's people are very real, with each story generally revealing the characters layer by layer. There is a devastating story that shows us the rot that lies behind the marriage of the sweet little old man and woman who always hold hands and do everything together. Another story shows the very real pain of a man raised by a temperamental and sharp tongued mother while simultaneously showing the bewilderment of the mother who cannot understand that her son does not know how very much she loves the boy. This book is worth reading for these brilliant flashes of ordinary life, and particularly worth reading if you enjoy short stories, or like to read the stark, bare, haunting prose that I usually associate with authors like Wallace Stegner.

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