By Kari Heil
Olive Kitteridge (2008) by Elizabeth Strout is the best book I read this summer. I picked it up from my mom’s shelf, guessing from the cover art (garden scene, blurred at the edges) that it might be a kind of schmoopy woman’s book – not the worst kind with nothing but a romantic relationship to float the storyline (different cover art for those), but something kind of flat and one-dimensional, meant to describe a woman’s experience. Being a woman myself, of course I appreciate writers’ efforts to portray women’s lives; but I think those efforts often fall short when they’re just about being a woman. Generally, my mom has great taste in books, though, so I decided to give Olive Kitteridge a try.
And I’m glad I did! It’s not just a woman’s story, though the central character is a woman. Strout’s book tells thirteen separate, but sometimes related, stories about a number of people in a small town in coastal Maine, all revolving around, involving, or at least featuring an appearance by the title character. And what a character Olive Kitteridge is! She is a brash, outspoken, large woman who sometimes steamrolls people with her strong opinions and her brusque, even aggressive, manner. But I couldn’t help finding her kind of refreshing, couldn’t help sympathizing with her, even if I didn’t always approve of her behavior or share her views or even like her much. In fact, nobody in Crosby, Maine seems to like Olive all that much, even her husband, who loves her deeply. Olive is a difficult woman to like.
Strout’s collection of short stories, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009, covers a wide range of human experience and emotion and portrays many different kinds of characters: women and men, young and old, rich and poor, white collar and blue collar. There are love stories, stories of betrayal or desperation, stories about personal or family crisis, stories about self-discovery and individual empowerment. Strout’s descriptions of the ways ordinary people think and interact with one another are detailed, true, and beautiful.
One of my favorite stories, “Starving,” is about an unhappily married man named Harmon, nearing retirement, who has a brief affair with a nice church lady named Daisy, a widow, and then falls in love with her after they’ve decided to end their physical liaison. Along the way, Daisy befriends an anorexic young woman, Nina. One afternoon when Nina and Harmon both happen to be visiting Daisy, Olive Kitteridge shows up at Daisy’s house, soliciting donations for the Red Cross, staying for coffee and a doughnut. (The doughnuts are a recurring theme in this story and others in the collection, but I can’t get into that here.) Nina won’t eat. Olive, while devouring a doughnut, observes the young woman and matter-of-factly comments that she’s starving, adding insightfully a moment later that all of us are starving. “Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?” Olive asks bluntly. Then Olive surprises everyone (and readers) by sharing Nina’s pain, crying for the starving girl and crying for herself.
From each story, we learn something more about Olive. In a few stories, readers see her only very briefly. In each story, readers see her from a slightly different perspective than what we saw in earlier stories. This is how Strout constructs such a complex, interesting, and ultimately sympathetic character in Olive. Readers simply know Olive by the time we get to the final stories, and this knowing, understanding – love – covers the multitude of Olive’s sins we have been shown throughout the book. We know how wrong she is about some things, how poorly she has conducted herself in certain situations, how she has made grave mistakes as a wife and mother; but we admire how fiercely she grabs whatever life gives her and holds on.
A retired teacher, a resigned widow, Olive is not very remarkable in any ostensible way, but I find her kind of inspiring. What is objectively a book about mostly oldish people in Maine, and one old lady in particular, actually is so much more. Olive Kitteridge is a sturdy woman, physically and emotionally. Though she fears change, she refuses to stop living or give up, and she is forceful in the way she embraces those she loves. Reading Olive Kitteridge is an invigorating, bracing experience.
For the Kiddos
Bink and Gollie (2010), by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee and illustrated by Tony Fucile, caught our eye at a bookstore this summer, and we bought it straight away; but I’m happy to find that our local children’s library also owns a copy of this great book. Divided into three short episodes that build on one another, the book is a touching story of friendship between two girls who are as different as can be, but who need each other and work hard to understand one another. They learn to compromise, respect one another’s space, and trust the strength of their mutual attachment. It sounds very serious, but it’s not, actually: their adventures involve roller-skating, buying blindingly bright striped socks, and making pancakes, among other things. The humor is understated and wry, as funny for parents as for kids. (For example, “Some socks are more loveable than others,” and “Fish know nothing of longing,” are two quotable remarks Gollie makes to Bink.) The illustrations are unusual, almost all black and white with grey washes, except for the depictions of the two girls, who burst from the pages in full color, full of life. Your kids will love the girls’ neighboring houses: Bink lives in a little cottage at the bottom of a giant tree, and Gollie lives in an ultra-mod bungalow at the top! Conveniently, there’s a nice bench on a big branch halfway up. The way Bink and Gollie take care of each other will just make you smile.