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Tuesday, June 15, 2010


My good friend Roberta (Canoes of Kupe) McIntyre and I were talking book groups, and the book her group is reading at the moment sounded so intriguing that I headed for the library.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, was the winner of last year's Pulitzer for fiction (2009) -- which meant I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  Would it be over-written, highbrow, and boring, or would I be startled by its novelty? 

"Startled" came first.  Intriguingly, I found that it is a collection of thirteen short stories, as I had not been aware that short stories were eligible.  Additionally, at least six have been published before, in magazines ranging from The New Yorker to O: The Oprah Magazine, which has meant slight, but discernible, disparities in style. 

But that didn't matter, as I like the short story genre.  Additionally, important strands link them into a cohesive whole -- all save one are set in Crosby, a small town in coastal Maine, and the character of Olive Kitteridge features in them all, though often just as a mention.

Then I was riveted, because of the nature of the protagonist.  Even when just a footnote, Olve Kitteridge is a compelling character.  The maths teacher from some childhood hell, she should be an awful woman -- contemptuously rude to the gentle, submissive husband who loves her despite all the odds, often angry, abrupt in speech, intolerant of neighbours, absolutely incapable of expressing her adoration of her only son -- and yet I came to care about her.  In one particularly telling story, where Olive overhears her catty new daughter-in-law discussing her demeanour and dress, I was angry enough to spit on her behalf.

Otherwise, there were reasons I should not have liked this book.  The themes are universally depressing -- the tired challenges of a reluctant retirement, marriage that seems more like bondage than a partnership, the inability to communicate love, the terrors of old age, the awful threat of loneliness after the death of a partner, a piercingly acute depiction of anorexia.  So why did I love it, instead? 

First, Strout is a wonderful story-teller.  The book is a page-turner, a compulsive read.  I had great difficulty putting it down, and finished it within two days. 

Second, the writing scintillates.  I did have problems with the one chapter set outside Crosby, Maine (a difficult story that took place in Brooklyn, New York), but her depiction of daily existence in a small town in Maine rang with a sense of utter truth -- in this, Strout reminded me of another great describer of American daily life, Willa Cather. 

Strongly recommended, a wonderful pick for the prize.  Now to ask Roberta what her book group thought ....

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