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Emotions are raw and real in 'Olive Kitteridge'

ELIZABETH STROUT ELIZABETH STROUT (JERRY BAUER)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jessica Treadway
May 25, 2008

Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 270 pp., $25

Elizabeth Strout's new book, "Olive Kitteridge," is chock-full of those moments that make you need to close the page on your finger and look up, in order to absorb the power and poignancy of what you've just read. There's the title character lying on her son's bed after his outdoor wedding, overhearing through the window her new daughter-in-law making fun of the dress Olive has chosen to wear for the occasion. There's the child who, after her mother takes off, believes that her father has been awarded "soul custody" of her. And there is the sense, throughout, that even in despair - as when the character Rebecca thinks, "This can't be my life" - the possibility of hope, "that inner churning that moves you forward," can beckon when it is least expected.

Although the book is being marketed as "a novel in stories," it is not a novel but, like Sherwood Anderson's classic "Winesburg, Ohio," a unified cycle of finely observed tales focusing on characters inhabiting a single town; in the case of Olive Kitteridge, the setting is Crosby, Maine. Olive, a prickly, retired math teacher married to Henry, a gentle pharmacist who is more well liked than his wife, is the character we come to know best by the end of the book, although others are compelling as well. Olive and Henry have one child, a grown son, Christopher, for whom they build a house near their own when he returns from podiatry school. They hope he will settle down with a local woman and give them grandchildren, but the woman he marries - a "beast," in Olive's opinion - persuades Christopher to move to San Francisco. When she divorces Christopher shortly afterward, Olive is happy to think that now Christopher will move back home. But he elects to remain in California, breaking his mother's heart in a loss presaging others, all of which Strout portrays with the brilliant evocation of emotion - "for Olive, this is like someone has swung a lobster buoy and slammed her in the breastbone" - that made her previous books, the novels "Amy and Isabelle" and "Abide With Me," such literary successes.

Indeed, loss is the major theme of "Olive Kitteridge," particularly the loss of youth, and of the illusions that age and experience render difficult to sustain. Perhaps the story that best exemplifies Strout's mastery in depicting the emotional undercurrents in a relationship is "A Different Road," in which Henry and Olive, stopping in at the local hospital on the way home from dinner so that Olive can use the bathroom, are held hostage by two young men seeking drugs. Tied up in the bathroom with a doctor and nurse, with a gun pointed at them by a red-haired kid with fingernails bitten to the quick, Olive - believing they are all about to be shot to death - blurts out to Henry, "Did it ever occur to you that's why Christopher left? Because he married a Jew and he knew his father would be judgmental?," to which her husband responds quietly, "That's a despicable thing to accuse me of, Olive, and you know it isn't true. He left because from the day your father died, you took over that boy's life. You didn't leave him any room." Later, having survived, Henry tries to assure Olive, and himself, that these tirades originated in fear, and that the two of them will "get over them in time." But they both know this isn't true, and Olive acknowledges to herself that the real crisis was not that they were held hostage in a hospital bathroom, but that their marriage has been irretrievably changed by the things they said to each other.

Strout is equally deft at life's lighter moments, even when they occur in serious contexts. Coming across a fallen man on the path she walks every morning by the river, Olive bends over to ask him, "Are you dead?" Gradually recovering, Jack tells her that he'd felt dizzy: "I put my head between my legs, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the ground, with some woman squawking at me, 'Are you dead?' " Olive, her face warming, observes, "You seem less dead every minute."

Though some of her characters may drink too much, cheat on their spouse, say nasty things, or even shoot at their children's suitors, Strout never condescends to them; rather, she shows how their actions arise from the complexity of their emotions. And many of them are gifted with significant insight into themselves and their neighbors, which enhances our appreciation of their interactions. In "Basket of Trips," Olive realizes that she attended a new widow's husband's funeral not just because the now-dead Henry would have wanted her to, but because "she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else's sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement."

"Olive Kitteridge" is an often-painful book to read because of its insistence on life's sharper realities, but that is precisely what makes it such a gratifying stunner. In the beginning of one story, a husband and wife are driving through town admiring the houses adorned with Christmas lights, and she says contentedly, "All these lives. All the stories we never know." Strout has made it her mission to excavate some of those stories from the houses we see from the road, and to pass them along to us in language we understand with the heart.

Jessica Treadway is the author of "Absent Without Leave" and "And Give You Peace." She teaches at Emerson College.

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