Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout


Reviewed by Ted Gioia



The United States' founders may have championed the
"pursuit of happiness," but American authors have been
far more interested in the pursuit of unhappiness.  
Apparently taking their cue from Thoreau's insistence
that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,"
later writers have labored to uncover the despair behind
the ostensible prosperity and success of the American
experience.

The modern American novel has taken this on as a
particularly rich theme, indeed an almost inexhaustible
one.  From Sherwood Anderson's
Winesburg, Ohio
(1919), Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) and William
Faulkner's
Absalom, Absalom! (1936) all the way to
Marilynne Robinson's
Housekeeping (1980), Toni
Morrison's
Beloved (1987) and, more recently, David
Foster Wallace's
Infinite Jest (1996) and Jonathan
Franzen's
The Corrections (2001), the nation’s leading
authors have taken aim at the hypocrisies and pathologies
of American aspiration, especially as it
has flourished in small towns and rural
life.  Moviemakers have joined in this
movement, with films as diverse as
The
Last Picture Show
(1971), Blue Velvet
(1986), American Beauty (1999) putting
their stakes in the heart of the heartland.

Is it possible to tell this story in the twenty-
first century without repeating the clichés
and threadbare themes of these past
masterpieces?  Author Elizabeth Strout
clearly thinks so, and her 2008 book
Olive Kitteridge impressed the Pulitzer
Prize judges enough to earn it their
acclaim as the best American novel of the year.  Yet the
approach here is not much different from
what Sherwood
Anderson introduced a century ago, namely a series of
interconnected stories that tear away the façade of propriety
of small town life, to reveal the eccentricities and worse that
are usually hidden from view.

I am tempted to call this the 'tragic' side of small town life.  
But there is little scope for tragedy in Strout's book.  The
essence of tragedy, and the reason for its lasting appeal
to audiences, comes from the intimate connection between
a protagonist's flawed character and the resulting downfall.  
But the terrible things that happen to people in
Olive
Kitteridge
typically take place for random reasons or no
reason at all.  A woman tells her husband to stop at the
local hospital because she needs to use the restroom, and
while she is there two criminals show up and take them
hostage.  Our heroine Olive Kitteridge falls in love with a co-
worker, but he dies unexpectedly in a car accident.   She
could rebuild the relationship with her husband, but he suffers
a sudden stroke and is left in a semi-vegetative state.  Again
and again, key developments in this book simply happen,
with no advance warning, and though this may be more
realistic than the events outlined in, say,
Moby Dick , the
end result is closer to melodrama than tragedy.   

Yet our main character has no shortage of personal flaws, if
not tragic ones.  Elizabeth Strout makes no effort to show off
her chief protagonist in a positive light.  Olive Kitteridge is
irritable, unreasonable and spiteful.  She steals stuff from her
own daughter-in-law, ends many of her phone calls by simply
hanging up on the other party and, by her own admission,
has never apologized for anything in her life.  "I see," she
says, when her son points out how hard it is to have a civil
conversation with her. "Everything is my fault." Her son
replies: "No. Everything is someone else's fault; that's my
point."

Strout puts further uncontrollable obstacles in Olive's way—
and in the path of readers who want the heroine to act like,
well, a heroine.  She is overweight, and is always getting into
trouble with her clothing—spilling ice cream on her outfit or
getting runs in her stockings. Of course, even when these
clothes are in good shape, they are hardly flattering.  A
typical line:  "Olive felt big and baggy inside her long vest
that she had made from an old set of curtains."

Strout no doubt prides herself on the realism of her characters
and, to her credit, they are recognizable types from everyday
life.  After all, the streets of small towns are filled with more
Susan Boyle look-alikes than Kim Kardashian clones.  Yet
this dowdiness and irritability exacts a price:  readers may
struggle to make an emotional connection with Ms. Kitteridge
or, even worse, find her just as disagreeable as her neighbors
in Crosby, Maine believe her to be.  Or, if their deeper feelings
are engaged, they may well be pity or scorn.

Strout compensates for this with some inventive interludes,
her wry dialogue and an impressive skill at mixing dark humor
into her even darker plots.  One of the stories features a very
funny recurring joke, that some filmmaker  or sitcom
scriptwriter should borrow.  When Olive visits her son, she
finds that the tenant upstairs owns a trained parrot that
responds to every swear word with "Praise God" or "Jesus
is king." The gag is simple enough, but Strout extracts the
maximum amount of comedy from the concept.  

Yet this is mostly a serious book, sometimes bordering on
the somber—as is inevitable in a story that deals again and
again with death, illness, decline and suicide.  How, I
wondered while reading
Olive Kitteridge, could Strout bring
the many loose threads and unresolved conflicts to a suitable
and satisfying conclusion.  She pulls it off, in a final tale that is
the most compelling and engaging section of this variegated
book.   Yet even as I was moved by the unexpectedly uplifting
turn taken in the final pages, I was left puzzled by their
mismatch with the rest of the book.   I couldn't help wishing
that the author would start all over again, and find a different
way of reaching that same conclusion.  

Of course, there is no reason why an author can't take a
sourpuss of a character, and show off her shining side in
the last chapter.  But the reader is likely to feel manipulated.  
Just as a plot in which major complications come from
random, unpleasant events, all happening by chance, also
seems manipulative.  So even if I have no gripes about the
"pursuit of unhappiness” in American fiction, I will stick by
my insistence that the characters should bring their own
unhappiness upon themselves.  In this book, they rarely get
the opportunity.  
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Great Books Guide
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BY TED GIOIA

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