Sunday, February 7, 2010
Just read Olive Kitteridge already. K?
About a month, I ran into Molly Gloss and Gretchen Corbett at Theatre Vertigo’s opening night of Boom, the fiercely funny new play by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. I was toting a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Olive Kitteridge, and Molly said: “Olive. A hard person to like.”
True that, though by the end of this story collection, I could say I loved the title character without, perhaps, really liking her. Put another way, I was impressed with Mrs. Kitteridge, though if I were able to knock on her front door up in Crosby, Maine, I doubt she would have time for me.
Ms. Strout does a remarkable thing with this interconnected group of short stories; she gives us an antiheroine that we can surmise would not care for us personally and makes us grant her a grudging acknowledgment of humanity. We note how Olive is mired in her private pathologies -- her quirks and tics that are so obvious to us but not to her -- and know the reverse equation pertains, too. Olive would instantly see through our self-delusions, but unlike most people, she just might point them out.
Olive’s author accomplishes in a remarkable way. Of the 13 stories in this collection, only a handful are actually about Olive herself. She appears in every story, however -- sometimes only fleetingly yet tellingly (waving indifferently at a piano player on the way into a restaurant, for example), sometimes more substantially. And in this way, Ms. Strout gives us a composite portrait of an American Gothic original and her family. We see her as others see how, and we decided when their assessments are right and when they’re wrong.
Sometimes a work of fiction can shake your soul without any apparent attempt to do that. Many of the stories show us people in a rural community who make quiet decisions that changes their lives forever -- the decisions that have been coming for years yet were not clearly foreseen. Some make you smile; others break your heart. Particular affecting for me were “A Little Burst” and “Starving,” but it’s really the accumulation of all the stories that carries the book’s impact.
Do yourself a favor and read Olive Kitteridge.