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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Advance Book Review: "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout

I am not normally a fan of short stories. While I appreciate the technical abilities of the short story writer, I find “shortness” troublesome. Generally, the longer a book is, the more appealing. Consequently, I was initially leery of the descriptions of Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” which calls itself “a novel in stories.”

All of the stories in this book occur in the town of Crosby, Maine. At the center of many of the book’s stories is the person, Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher. In the stories that don’t feature Olive, her name may appear only once in an effort to tie it to the larger work. That the stories center on one town, and a limited number of that town’s inhabitants, who also reappear from time to time, I did not encounter my usual problems with short stories. This book gently reminded me of what is best about short-stories: a brief slice of a life, a snapshot that tells a complete-enough story. In having all these stories bound together, one feels a bit like the proverbial “fly on the wall”; a fly who may spend most of, but certainly not all, it’s time in one particularly interesting home (Olive’s).

I especially enjoyed reading about Olive in her post-retirement years, the ways in which she deals with other people and herself. In many ways, I can identify with Olive, having doled out bits of malice in angering situations; or having been soft and tender-hearted during others. Like Olive, I too have been both fool and sage.

I really enjoyed “Olive Kitteridge.” Olive is a complex person vacillating between viciousness and compassion. In the way all people are puzzles, so is Olive. In one story she does something deplorable, in another she potentially saves a life. People can never be fully known, merely experienced in bits and pieces, from which a general portrait may be formed. This book is a testament to the mystery that is humanity: why we do what we do, what motivates us, how even self-knowledge is warped and lacking, and how ultimately, all people are fundamentally incapable of seeing themselves as a whole. Olive also embodies hope: one is never too old for surprises.

Many of the “stories” in “Olive Kitteridge” are deeply profound and thought provoking. I will not be at all surprised when this book does very well. It’s structure is unusual; it’s message is penetrating and accessible and universal. Olive causes me to think of the many complex, and at times unlikeable, people in my own life in a different way. Strout is a master of revealing the many onion-like layers of interpersonal relationships. Halfway through “Olive Kitteridge” I went out and bought two of her other books. I am also tentatively considering reading some other short-story collections by authors whose novels I’ve loved.

Like any great book, “Olive Kitteridge” slightly shifts the way in which I look at the world and other people, and perhaps most importantly, myself.

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