Saturday, October 31, 2015

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

This novel's been on my radar ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009.
Woman and the Sea,
by Will Barnet

As I looked at its entry on Goodreads, I noticed that reader reviews were almost entirely at the opposite ends of the spectrum -- one-star ("If I could use one word to describe this book, it would probably be boring. Awkward is a close runner-up. I think Elizabeth Strout must be the type of person who is less of the entertainment school of writing and more of the vitamins school of writing...") or five-star ("... this book gives us a new female heroine. Not meant to be liked, not meant to be revered, not meant to fit in, but totally and absolutely real.")  

When Carolyn Chute published her all too realistic and none too flattering novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine in 1985, it received similar love-hate responses. My father felt it was painfully realistic but had no redemptive value.

I wonder how many of the adverse reactions come from people who feel defensive of a state that they cherish as a summer holiday destination -- crystal clear skies, rugged coastlines, steamed lobster! They may well be reluctant to consider the Maine of a dismal February, when elderly people die in their living rooms of hypothermia because they can't afford enough heating oil, or a Maine with skyrocketing addiction to prescription painkillers thanks to all the workplace injuries among fishermen, loggers and other blue-collar workers. Maine has always had a dark, grim aspect. One artist that captures both its beauty and somberness is Will Barnet. His lithograph, "Woman and the Sea", is hanging in my living room now. It hung for many years in my mother's living room before that, and it drew much the same responses from our friends, who have found it either serene or morbidly depressing.  I think it's both.  It is fundamentally Maine. Exactly like Olive Kitteridge and the other characters that weave in and out of Elizabeth Strout's 13 interconnected short stories. 

Olive is the thread that connects them; she's central to some, peripheral to others. When her husband hires a young woman to work in his pharmacy, Olive shares her opinion, which is, as always, deadly blunt.
"Mousy," his wife said, when he hired the new girl. "Looks just like a mouse." Denise Thibodeau had round cheeks, and small eyes that peeped through her brown-framed glasses.
"But a nice mouse," Henry said. "A cute one."
"No one's cute who can't stand up straight," Olive said.

In another story, Angie has decided that she can no longer carry on with her married lover. After two decades.
She went to the phone and dialed Malcolm's number. Not once, in twenty-two years, had she called him at home, although she had memorized his number long ago. Twenty-two years, she thought, as she listened to the buzz of the ring, would be considered a very long time by most people, but for Angie time was as big and round as the sky, and to try to make sense of it was like trying to make sense of music and God and why the ocean was deep. Long ago Angie had known not to try to make sense of these things, the way other people tried to do. Malcolm answered the phone.
It was a curious thing -- she didn't like the sound of his voice. "Malcolm," she said softly. "I can't see you anymore. I'm so terribly sorry, but I can't do this anymore." Silence. His wife was probably right there. "Bye, now," she said. 
She phoned Malcolm from the pay phone in the lounge where she played piano.  After hanging up the phone, she returns to work.
She drank, with one hand, all the Irish coffee. And then she played all sorts of songs. She didn't know what she played, couldn't have said, but she was inside the music, and the lights on the Christmas tree were bright and seemed far away. Inside the music like this, she understood many things. 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 to 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. The lounge was mostly empty now. And warmer, since the door wasn't being opened all the time. She played "We Shall Overcome" she played it twice, slowly, grandly, and looked over at the bar to where Walter was smiling at her. He raised a fist into the air.
"Want a ride, there, Angie?" Joe asked as she closed the top of the piano, went and gathered her coat and pocketbook.
"No, thank you, dear," she said as Walter helped her into her white fake fur coat. "The walk will do me good." Clutching her little blue pocketbook, she picked her way over the snowbank ...
Mainers tend to be loners; some by choice, others less so. The weather is harsh.
Bessie Davis, the town's old maid, stood and talked for a long time while she bought a new dustpan. She spoke of her hip problems, her bursitis. She spoke of her sister's thyroid condition. "Hate this time of year," she said, shaking her head. Harmon felt a rush of anxiety as she left. Some skin that had stood between himself and the world seemed to have been ripped away, and everything was close, and frightening. Bessie Davis had always talked on, but now he saw her loneliness as a lesion on her face. The words Not me, not me crossed over his mind.

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