July 11, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

This is a reading summer, among other things. First summer I've had to myself since before I started grad school, about five years ago, and I'm really enjoying it. I have one more week before it all ends and have two more books to read--wonder if I'll make it? Don't expect this many book reviews from me for a long time--I'm such a sludge in the reading department when the grading begins.

Anyway, I finished Olive Kitteridge this morning. Written by Elizabeth Strout, it is an episodic novel about a retired school teacher, Olive, but it's also about her town. The New York Times puts it this way: "The presence of Olive Kitteridge, a seventh-grade math teacher and the wife of a pharmacist, links these 13 stories. A big woman, she’s like a planetary body, exerting a strong gravitational pull. Several stories put Olive at the center, but in a few she makes only a fleeting appearance."

"In one story, Olive bursts into tears when she meets an anorexic young woman. “I don’t know who you are,” she confesses, “but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.” “I’m starving, too,” Olive tells her. “Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?” “You’re not starving,” the girl replies, looking at this large woman, with her thick wrists and hands, her “big lap.” “Sure I am,” Olive says. “We all are.” (from the NYT)

Some other favorite lines--
In discussing an older couple, Strout writes: "He put the blinker on, pulled out onto the avenue. 'Well that was nice,' she said, sitting back. They had fun together these days, they really did. It was as if marriage had been a long, complicated meal, and now there was this lovely dessert."

Olive goes on a trip to New York and from the plane she saw the landscape: "fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun, father out the coastline, the ocean shiny and almost flat, tiny white wakes behind a few lobster boats--then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat. . . seen from up here it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed."

She's not an easy character, with her constant inner judgement meter running, the abrasiveness she demonstrated sometimes, her moodiness (which gets her into some sad situations), but she's a woman who has a generous heart, most of the time.

The Times noted that the weakest chapters are those where Olive only appears briefly, and I agree. But I loved the discussion of these characters who are past the hot bright burning-out of youth, who have to live with their faults, and with the faults of others. As a mother-in-law, I got a kick out of her reaction to her daughter-in-law, that uneasy push and pull feeling of losing a son, and not knowing how it will all turn out.

In grad school, I read so much coming of age stuff, that sexual passion lit that drives the under-thirties. Sometimes I found it tedious; as the oldest student in the program it was so much yesterday's news. I longed for novels to read that explored the landscape of the middle-aged character, with a life of, as Olive puts it, "big bursts and little bursts."

Read the book to find out what she means.

1 comment:

  1. This one is on my list too. So many good books on my list right now - a bit overwhelming.