She understood that Simon was a disappointed man if he needed, at this age, to tell her he had pitied her for years. She understood that as he drove his car back down the coast toward Boston, toward his wife with whom he had raised three children, that something in him would be satisfied to have witnessed her the way he had tonight, and she understood that this form of comfort was true for many people, as it made Malcolm feel better to call Walter Dalton a pathetic fairy; but it was thin milk, this form of nourishment; it could not change that you had wanted o be a concert pianist and ended up a real estate lawyer, that you had married a woman and stayed married to her for thirty years, when she did not ever find you lovely in bed.
Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge , winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a novel of short stories, all connected by their setting and the presence of the title character, the crotchety, depressed, and often cruel retired schoolteacher whose role varies from episode to episode. In several stories, she sits at the center, sometimes with her long-suffering husband Henry, sometimes with her semi-estranged son Christopher (whose life appears to be the long process of recovery from having Olive as a mother), and at the end, in “River,” as the star.
Along the way we meet many other residents of the small town Crosby, Maine, the suicides and would-be suicides, the drunks, the faithless spouses, the grieving widow, the older couple looking for safety in each other, almost nobody happy and nearly everyone dealing in some way with depression. That makes for compelling reading, as Strout’s understanding not so much of the human psyche but of the why and how we become depressed is so deep that she can paint these characters with a delicate hand, but it also makes for a complete freaking downer of a book. It is great literature, with prose reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s, and Olive is a riveting and fully realized character, but she’s also unlikeable for her coldness and her refusal – or inability – to take responsibility for her actions and their effects on those around her.
The short story novel concept is a new one to me – whether this even qualifies as a novel is a matter of opinion, but the presence of Olive in every episode and the overarching story arc of this later period of life does tie everything together with a clear direction from start to finish – and reading it gave me the feeling of watching a season of a TV series, each episode self-contained, introducing a new cast around the central character. The downside is that we merely get glimpses into each side character, such as Angie, the alcoholic piano player whose role as the other woman is contributing to her malaise, or Julie, the overdramatic woman jilted on her wedding day by a fiance who wants to be with her but not to marry her, and whose conclusion is open-ended and unsatisfying. But I don’t think Strout’s goal was to satisfy but to, as the blurb on the back cover says (in a rare instance of one of such text proving accurate), “offer profound insights into the human condition.” And I’d say on that front, she succeeded. I just wouldn’t call her if I had a case of the blues.
Next up: Vacation, with at least nine books in tow, starting with Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance and Pierre Magnan’s Death in the Truffle Wood. And since this is a real vacation, involving planes and such, I’ll be offline all of next week, including, most blissfully of all, email.