This is a must-read for Elizabeth Strout fans who have read My Name is Lucy Barton. As with Olive Kitteridge, it is a collection of linked short stories featuring characters from Lucy Barton’s home town. It’s not a sequel per se, more of a companion novel, but nevertheless an amazing back story giving portraits of people living in this fictional small town. I guess she wasn’t quite done with them yet! Because it isn’t a sequel, either book could be read first. Anything is possible when one human makes an authentic connection to another. One reviewer called this book a requiem to small town pain!
“Here, among others, are the ‘Pretty Nicely Girls,’ now adults: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband, the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. Tommy, the janitor at the local high school, has his faith tested in an encounter with an emotionally isolated man he has come to help; a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD discovers unexpected solace in the company of a lonely innkeeper; and Lucy Barton’s sister, Vicky, struggling with feelings of abandonment and jealousy, nonetheless comes to Lucy’s aid, ratifying the deepest bonds of family.”
Strout is one of my favourite authors just because her stories are so real and unsentimental yet evoke such feeling and conflict. I’m not thrilled about investing in short stories, so I do expect to be drawn into a story immediately and completely, and in this Strout does not disappoint. If you are an Alice Munro fan, you’ll love Strout. They both have a way of capturing deep nuance and hope in everyday life: love and loss, reconciliation, complicated family bonds, resentments big and small, indignities, disappointments, grace, kindness, etc. and there is not necessarily a happily-ever-after or a definitive ending involved. Strout respects the reader enough to allow them to fill in some of the blanks.
Lucy Barton finds herself in hospital for 9 weeks fighting a mysterious virus. Her estranged mother suddenly shows up and stays for 5 days. It is this intimate visit that becomes the catalyst for Lucy (and the reader) to meander back into Lucy’s childhood, marked by the shame of extreme poverty and abuse. Her mother spends a lot of time talking about the secrets of others, while never being willing to reveal any of her own. Sitting patiently at Lucy’s bedside through night and day, refusing a cot, her mother says, “I’m used to catnapping. You learn to when you don’t feel safe.” Lucy must come to terms with the scars of her past as well as her vocation, marriage, and family relationships.
Strout is always in full command of a story. What I love about her writing is that she can evoke powerful emotion without an iota of sentimentality. Many things about Lucy’s childhood are merely hinted at as she explores this strange mother daughter relationship through some harrowing memories. Not all of it is spelled out on purpose. Strout respects the reader enough to leave gaps that can be filled in different ways depending on what the individual reader brings to the reading. It is at first glance a simple story, character driven, and sparse, but very rich in texture. The slim novel has very short chapters and lots of white space…it felt like the publisher too was leaving room for interpretation and reflection. But Strout is the kind of writer who can use few words to say an awful lot. Olive Kitteredge is my favourite of her books so far. Still The Burgess Boys and Amy & Isabelle to go!
Olive Kitteridge, a stern retired school teacher from a small seaside town in Maine, is the central character in this book of linked short stories. Each chapter is a complete snapshot in itself, but all together becomes an album of sorts, a well rounded and masterful novel that won the Pulitzer prize in 2009. Elizabeth Strout is an amazing writer. Years ago I read her book Abide with Me, which is also set in a small town and also is a novel full of the tough stuff of life. If you like books by Mary Lawson (Road Ends) and William Kent Krueger (Ordinary Grace), you’ll like books by Elizabeth Strout. And incidentally, if you are not a short story fan (like me) don’t be put off. I found these short stories easy to get into and superbly done.
New England is an atmospheric setting for the story. Olive is an enigma. At once cantankerous and compassionate, testy and trustworthy, ferocious and faithful, her harshness results in driving people away, but she also saves lives. Her manner is off putting, especially next her to long-suffering and kind husband Henry, but her character is so complex and full of surprises that we are intrigued about what makes her tick. Each chapter introduces new characters from the town, but people we’ve already met do pop up in other chapters. As I started each new story I was already anticipating how and where Olive would appear.
Telling the story this way, creates a well rounded view of the town as well as of Olive herself. “There is no such thing as a simple life.” Olive may at times seem like a beast but deep down she has the same flaws, fears, and longings as anyone, making this a profound human story that I found very real and satisfying.
Also fun was watching the HBO four episode TV mini-series after I finished reading. The television version is very true to the book and also very well done.