by, Elizabeth Strout
2008, Random House
It is uncommon for exquisite writing and expert storytelling to meet in the same book. It is uncommon for a collection of short stories to read as a perfectly balanced novel. It is uncommon for a single character to be so dynamic that the observation of her mundane life would be spellbinding. It is a priceless gem that is able to do all of those things. The novel Olive Kitteridge is such a priceless gem.
Elizabeth Strout brings to life the character of Olive Kitteridge – a retired school teacher in Crosby, Maine – with thirteen interlaced short stories. Often, the stories begin from the perspective of a different character, capturing their situations while providing wide-ranging perspectives of Olive – from obsessive to caring, remorseful to funny, tyrannical to ambivalent. In many cases, Olive is only an ancillary character in the story, and yet her powerful personality burrows into everyone’s consciousness – sometimes for the better, sometimes not – but always affecting them in some way. Strout produces a tour-de-force of the waning years of a character that highlights facets of our delights, our fears, our failings. There is humanity in these stories that reaches out from the page and sparks memories from our own lives. In addition, Strout’s writing is magical. She is able to create layer upon layer of depth with her writing, bringing the people, places and events into stunning clarity while never lingering anywhere for too long – a most uncommon talent.
“But the gesture, the smooth cupping of the little girl’s head, the way Suzanne’s hand in one quick motion caressed the fine hair and thin neck, has stayed with Olive. It was like watching some woman dive from a boat and swim easily up to the dock. A reminder how some people could do things other could not.”
This one passage summarizes how I felt as I read Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout is a woman who makes writing beautiful, meaningful stories appear so effortless, while reminding readers how she is able to do things with words other could not. My only disappointment was when the book had to inevitably reach its end. I cannot overreach in calling this book a simple masterpiece. Find the time to read this book – you will be well rewarded for the effort.
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