Monday, October 19, 2009
Somehow the fact that “Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer Prize passed me by. So when a friend placed it in my hands and told me I must read it, I figured that she and the Pulitzer committee knew a lot more than I did.
I read the book in the soupy heat of August, but was immediately transported to the coolness of the state of Maine, a place near to my heart, where half my family hails from. After finishing the first chapter I thought, good lord, I know these people!
Strout nails New England, its light, its people, its manner of speaking and beautiful spareness- in a way that made my heart ache for home and wintertime as high summer pulsed outside.
Olive Kitteridge, the book’s namesake, is woven into this novel throughout its thirteen stories. Sometimes Olive is the main event, sometimes she just has a cameo, but she is always present in each piece. In this way Strout shows Olive from multiple perspectives, building upon our idea of just who Olive Kitteridge is, like a fine and fragile mille-feuille.
Strout’s language straddles a difficult line between the spare and the descriptive, so fine that the art of it is effortlessly hidden. She manages to get inside the hearts and heads of a cast of characters in this small town of Crosby, Maine. Strout leaves no stone unturned, but she is also not the sort of writer who thrives on exploiting her character’s flaws for post-modern shock value. Rather, the book is a keening collective cry about life as it often is-- full of confusion, with expectations unmet, with creeping seeds of bitterness, and the loneliness we feel even around those we love most.
Strout has the exceedingly rare ability to illuminate the sacred in the every day, to isolate the mechanism within other human being’s minds that makes them tick. In “Olive Kitteridge” she tears open the veil laid over everyday events to reveal the emotions and motivations racing about just below the surface.
Like Olive Kitteridge the schoolteacher, Strout doesn’t let the reader off the hook—and we should be grateful to her for her unflinching candor.