Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Life as we live it

I recently joined my neighborhood's new book club, even though gathering into groups to discuss books doesn’t really appeal to me, and I don’t care for going out at night. I joined the book club mainly to support the effort and, I confess, to see whether it might not be so bad after all. The discussion will be held Thursday evening, so I'll find out soon.
But one thing is sure, and always will be: I'm glad I had a reason to read Elizabeth Strout's 2008 novel in short stories, Olive Kitteridge.
For convenience, I’ll let reviewer Louisa Thomas's characterization of the novel in "The Locals" (New York Times, April 20, 2008) stand as brief introduction:
Elizabeth Strout’s new "novel in stories" brings to life a hardscrabble community on the coast of Maine, a quintessentially New England town where people serve baked beans and ketchup when company comes and speak in familiar Down East accents ("ay-yuh"). But Olive Kitteridge is provincial only in a literal sense.
One story takes place at the funeral reception of a man whose wife has just learned of his infidelity. Another features a hostage-taking in a hospital. Elsewhere, an old lover surprises a lounge pianist, sending her reeling back into painful memories. An overbearing mother visits her wary son and his boisterous, pregnant wife. Most stories turn on some kind of betrayal. A few document fragile, improbable romances. They encompass a wide range of experience.
Five of the thirteen stories in Olive Kitteridge feature characters other than the title character, though Olive is mentioned or appears in almost all of them, and their themes of course reflect and elaborate hers (and the book’s): everyone’s life unfolds out of one’s genetic inheritance and paternal upbringing; all people make huge accommodations to the marriages and situations they find themelves in; everyone suffers betrayal and misunderstanding.
Olive Kitteridge is not light reading. It’s not “genre fiction.” It’s “mainstream”; it is life as we live it.
Every chapter tempted me with apt passages to quote to give you a taste. Choosing became a chore, so I opted for the following, from the final story, “River.” Olive is nearly eighty. She reflects that her ancestors paddled up the river she takes walks along. Her husband (Henry) died a year and a half ago, after spending the last few years of his life blind and speechless in a nursing home. Her son (Christopher) is still distant and disapproving. She finds a man (Jack) collapsed along the river one day. His spouse recently died also, and they become friends of a sort, even though she “can't stand” him and there’s much about him she dislikes, including that he's a Republican and voted for Bush, whom she hates, and he admits to a prejudice against homosexuals, including his own daughter:
Christopher didn’t call. Bunny (a life-long friend) didn’t call. Jack Kennison didn’t call.
One night she woke at midnight. She turned on her computer, and typed in Jack’s e-mail address, which she had gotten back when they were having lunch and going into Portland for concerts.
“Does your daughter hate you?” she wrote.
In the morning was the simple “Yes.”
She waited two days. Then she wrote: “My son hates me, too.”
An hour later came the response: “Does it kill you? It kills me that my daughter hates me. But I know it’s my fault.”
She wrote immediately. “It kills me. Like the devil. And it must be my fault, too, though I don’t understand it. I don’t remember things the way he seems to remember them. He sees a psychiatrist named Arthur, and I think Arthur has done this. “She paused a long time, clicked on Send, then immediately wrote, “P.S. But it has to be my fault, too. Henry said I never apologized for anything, ever, and maybe he was right.” She clicked on Send. Then she wrote: “P.S. AGAIN. He was right.” [p. 267]
A huge pleasure of reading Olive Kitteridge is connecting the stories’ characters and incidents. I needed to read the book a second time to work out an approximate time line, and in doing that I came to see how extensive the connections of characters and incidents is. And I only discovered this morning in a third reading of the story "Criminal" that its protagonist, Rebecca, is the granddaughter of the protagonist of Strout's 2006 novel, Abide with Me, which I started reading only last night.  (Now I’m sure I’ll enjoy Abide with Me even more for the connection.)
The third reading of “Criminal” also reminded me that Olive had been Rebecca’s math teacher in junior high school. Strout is meticulous in constructing the mosaic of the novel's local world, the world of Crosby, Maine. That world isn’t, in its particulars, much like the world I’ve inhabited, but I recognize its characters, its themes, its preoccupations. I think you will too.
One of the other club members selected Olive Kitteridge, from over a hundred book club kits on offer from our county library system. Your own local library might provide such kits, if this interests you.
Each paperback copy in our kit comes with a set of discussion questions in the back. For example, "Do you like Oliver Kitteridge as a person?" The questions will presumably help our discussion Thursday night, but I tried not to let them interfere with my reading.
I’ll answer the question quoted above: No, I don’t particularly like Olive. In fact, not many of the characters in the stories are particularly likable. But they are all real and interesting, their foibles often balanced by saving graces—just like the people you know, some of them in your own family.
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