Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Strout’

olive kitteridge

There are books you want to buy for other people, thrust into their hands and await the exclamations of joy. This is such a book. In a way, I feel I could happily say ‘forget the premise, forget all the reviews – just sit down and read it.’

Olive Kitteridge is the second Elizabeth Strout novel I have read, My Name is Lucy Barton was the first, and while I enjoyed that novel, this one makes me want to read everything she has written.

Although described as a novel the structure of this book is more of a series of linked stories – Olive Kitteridge is at the heart of them. Still, it manages to have the feel of a novel, there is a lovely sense of a community we become a part of, a sense of time passing, things changing, of a relationship that spans decades.

“He wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.”

A retired schoolteacher from a small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, Olive is a no-nonsense woman whose moods are unpredictable. Opinionated; a big woman Olive is a truly larger than life character. We first meet her before she retires, a middle-aged woman with a sulky teenage son, married to Henry, the popular town pharmacist. Henry is a kindly, gentle man, quiet where Olive is voluble, easy going and ever patient with his wife. Both he and Olive we learn early on have been tempted to stray – but they remain an ever-constant pair.

“You couldn’t make yourself stop feeling a certain way, no matter what the other person did. You had to just wait. Eventually the feeling went away because others came along. Or sometimes it didn’t go away but got squeezed into something tiny, and hung like a piece of tinsel in the back of your mind.”

We follow Olive from middle age to old age, we see her through the eyes of her husband, and the townspeople, some of whom Olive comes into but the briefest of contact – others who are more important. Olive has a knack of seeing right into the heart of the matter – so often in the right place at the right time, or the wrong time. Olive can be remarkably clear sighted about others at least, not always about her own life.

“Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.”

There are so many stories to be told, stories of ordinary people, stories that are captivating because they are real. We meet Kevin, back after several years away, he is depressed, haunted by a tragedy in his past. As he sits brooding in his car, Olive – who once taught Kevin – climbs into the car beside him and strikes up a conversation. There is a similar shadow in Olive’s past – and she recognises his pain. Many of Olive’s former students remember being a little afraid of her, but there is a good deal of respect too. Angela O’Meara is a piano player in the Warehouse Bar and Grill – her best years behind her – she never achieved her dreams, and is now trapped in a pointless relationship with a married man. Olive and a neighbour try to help a girl with an eating disorder, Olive as ever tells it like it is, but we see in her, her own brand of sympathy and she genuinely wants to help. Other townspeople we meet are unhappy, conducting affairs, grieving, shielding secrets. The Larkins are a couple shunned by everyone, they stay hidden behind the closed shutters of their home, close to Olive’s house – something terrible happened a few years earlier which it appears no one can forget.

When they are in their late sixties Olive and Henry undergo a terrible, frightening experience when coming home from dinner with friends. We feel the couple ageing rapidly. The experience changes them both. There are tensions with Christopher their only son, mostly between Olive and Christopher. So often surly and uncommunicative as a teenager and young adult, the relationship with the middle-aged man he becomes is no easier. Christopher is in his thirties when he marries, his parents build a lovely house for him nearby, Olive is delighted with the house, with the idea of her son having a family just around the corner, although she doesn’t much like the wife. Christopher’s wife persuades him to California, and Olive is wounded, when Christopher’s first marriage fails and he stays away – she is deeply hurt. For a long time, Olive can’t bear to drive past the house that she feels Christopher should still be living in. As the years go on, the gulf between them widens, Olive isn’t invited to his second wedding, and has little to do with her grandson. A visit she pays her son, his second wife and her children, is fraught with difficulties, bewildering misunderstandings and Olive goes home early. There is a sense that Olive and Christopher see their shared past differently. Olive can be defensive, easy to take umbrage – she buries her hurts inside her, and turns a stubborn face to the world.

“There were days – she could remember this – when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure.”

Elizabeth Strout gives us an unforgettable portrait of a complex character, Olive is flawed and yet we can sympathise with her – she is wonderfully real, and we get to know her thoroughly. I loved everything about this novel, the sense of place, the characterisation, the wisdom, humour and pathos. All of life is in this novel, and the writing is quite simply superb. I shouldn’t generalise – but in my opinion there aren’t many modern writers who write this well.


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It seems as if just about everyone has been reading this book this year, and I, as so often, came rather late to the party. Longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – My Name is Lucy Barton was also hugely popular with readers. It is a novel I have been told by others will make it on to their books of the year list – that’s a lot to live up to, and yes, I enjoyed it a lot but it hasn’t made my end of year list (it seems I have read a lot of superb books this year) – which I shall post tomorrow, if I get my act together. Still, this novel is deserving of all the accolades it has received, I loved the restrained, subtlety of the writing, and was impressed with how much is actually going on in less than 200 pages, when, on the surface there is little plot.

In part, My Name is Lucy Barton is a story of mothers and daughters, though it is also much more than that. It is a story of memory, of how the past shapes us, moulding us to who we become, and it is hard to shake that off.

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

Lucy herself narrates the story, she recalls a time, now many years in the past when she was confined to a hospital bed for several weeks. Her husband was left at home with their two daughters. Lucy has been living in New York for some years, since before her marriage, and it has been years since she has seen her mother, who she left behind her in Amgash, Illinois. One day while lying in her hospital bed with its view of the Chrysler building, Lucy wakes to find her mother sat by her bed. For several days, her mother stays with her constantly, refusing offers of a cot bed next to her daughter she takes occasional naps in the chair. Lucy loves just hearing the sound of her mother’s voice, there is comfort in her presence, in hearing herself called by her old pet name.

The two gossip lightly about the people from Lucy’s childhood, and as they talk the memories of Lucy’s poverty stricken childhood return. For many years, Lucy and her family, her parents, brother and sister lived in an unheated garage at the side of an uncle’s house. The children were singled out for ridicule at school. Lucy grew up not really knowing true affection – instead she remembers the terror of being locked in a car while her parents were away from the house. She also remembers with what appears to be great affection, the landscape of her childhood, even claiming to have been able to hear the corn growing in the fields.

“At times these days I think of the way the sun would set on the farmland around our small house in the autumn. A view of the horizon, the whole entire circle of it, if you turned, the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments. All life amazes me.”

Lucy remembers a time when she was tempted to run up to a stranger in town and ask for help – there were bad things happening in her home. Lucy’s childhood wasn’t a happy one, we gradually get a sense of what a relief her eventual escape was. We also learn about the very different life she had afterwards, marriage, motherhood and her ambition to write. By the time her mother is sat by her hospital bed Lucy has published a couple of stories in a literary journal. Her life as an aspiring writer in 1980s New York, is set against a backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, Lucy has seen the gaunt young men already touched by the disease walking through her neighbourhood.

With this novel Strout acknowledges the complexities which exist within fragile families, while Lucy is comforted by her mother’s presence, there is also an underlying tension. So much unsaid between the two women tells the real story of their relationship.

I have heard so much – on the old booky grapevine the last couple of years about Elizabeth Strout, I’m glad I finally paid attention. I also have Olive Kitteridge on my bookcase waiting, a few months ago, a young assistant in Waterstone’s was so enthusiastic about it I couldn’t not buy it. Judging by this excellent novel, beautifully and subtly written and so astutely and truthfully observed, I have a lot to look forward to with Elizabeth Strout’s other novels.


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