Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Elizabeth Strout/OLIVE KITTERIDGE
In a tiny seaside town in New England, neighbors and strangers go about their daily lives, facing the everyday dramas of dulling marriages, secret love affairs, difficult parents, difficult children, loneliness, old age, and even some more dramatic challenges: anorexia, hostage situations, suicide attempts, shoplifting, hunting accidents. Through all these associated short stories--each one of which is quiet but powerful, and each of which successfully stands alone--one character recurs: Olive Kitteridge, formidable town English teacher. Many stories are about Olive herself, but even in only the tangentally related stories she's bound to make an appearance at a piano bar or pass through a restraunt foyer.
While the book is fairly quiet, the strength lies in the careful detailing of the changes as characters move from middle age to age, which is one of the most provocative themes throughout. Olive herself is a "crusty" Down East type, and one that reminded me at many turns of my own New England schoolteacher mother, to whom I have now given my copy, which she is (reportedly) greatly enjoying.
Elizabeth Strout--I discovered, after much careful perusal of the needlepoint font on the copyright page--wrote these various stories over the past 20 years. The earliest story in the collection was published in 1990, and others have been published in other magazines since. It amazes me that she stuck with her town and a loose cast of characters through all those years--perhaps that is why the short stories are as finely tuned and convincing as they are.
I liked this book a lot, and recommend it as a satisfying read. For a short story collection, there was remarkable forward propulsion, and I was eager to keep reading (they way I would feel about a novel). I also think that perhaps I wasn't the target demographic--my mother, I think, is--and yet I enjoyed it very much.