Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Small Town Life

When I picked up Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, I didn’t realize:
a. that this author had also written Amy and Isabelle which we had read in our book group in 2000; and
b. that this is a group of short stories and not technically a novel.

It has a very interesting structure. Olive Kitteridge of the title lives in the small fictional Maine town of Crosby where as a working adult she has taught seventh grade math. In some of the stories (there are 13 in all), Olive is the main character and the story explores some aspect of her relationships with her husband and her son. In other stories, Olive has a supporting role to a main character who was a school colleague (for example, the school nurse). And in yet another story Olive may have only a mention as the seventh grade teacher of the now-grown student who is the focus of the story. But I think the individual stories would not work as well apart from their integration into the whole narrative. One thing you quickly notice about Olive is that she seems perpetually angry. The questions of course are “why?” and “at whom?”.

I can say with certainty that this is a collection of the saddest stories that I have ever read: dysfunctional families, loneliness, infidelity, grief, disappointment. Which isn’t a reason not to read – and enjoy – this book, but I would recommend taking it in small doses. The final story seems a little contrived, put there to leave the reader feeling somewhat hopeful and optimistic.

Why the sadness? Perhaps as Olive reflects “… in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement.” The stories are also reminders that you can know someone for a long time…and yet not really know him or her much at all.

The writing is polished and evocative as you would expect from someone on the faculty of a university MFA program. Though a small Maine town could not be more different from the urban setting in which I live, I am left with much food for thought and reflection.

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