36. Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout
hardcover, 267 pages
Some might call this a book of short stories, I think it is more a book with chapters on interrelated people in an area in Maine. A character you meet in one chapter shows up in another. I read only one at a time, and then put my bookmark back in the book, so I could absorb that person's life before going on to another's story. Olive Kitteridge is there in most of them, maybe even all. Sometimes it is just a mention, while other chapters are completely devoted to her.
One person left me a comment saying she began the book but dropped it because it felt 'a bit dark' to her. Well, dark it is, sometimes. Well, truth be told, most of the time. The people really are lonely, lonesome, alone. But most of them have a spark of something that lights up their lives even the tiniest bit. And those moments are appreciated.
Oh, I had a wonderful weekend. We went to Henry's folks and dug potatoes at night. Henry put the headlights on from the car and we dug potatoes. Finding the potatoes in that cold soil - like an Easter egg hunt!
When a man was dying, he'd ask his wife to bring him 'the basket of trips' - a basket which held pamphlets collected over the years of places they planned to go. They would look through them, 'talking about the trips we'd take when he got well.' They both knew he was dying, but this little event brought him joy and hope in those last days of life.
There are kindnesses that really can make someone's day, and the author knows this. I've felt my whole life that people who deal with the public; whether receptionists, grocery store clerks, salespeople in clothing stores, post office employees - each one of them can, and very often does, make another person's life a little better, one's burden a little lighter by simply being kind. It means everything to a young mother, often alone with a little baby all day with no one else to talk to, for the check out clerk to ooh and aah about the baby, and talk about blackberrying. To a widower, the teller in the bank may be the only person he sees for days. A couple examples from Olive Kitteridge are a piano player in a restaurant who would play a man's favorite song as he walked out after a meal, and a waitress in Dunkin' Donuts who remembers a customer likes extra milk in her coffee.
So, yes, there are sad people, but despite their circumstances, I didn't feel sorry for them; at least most of them. To me, this makes Olive Kitteridge a remarkable book. There are hurting people, people who cannot connect, people with mental instabilities. And I cared for them. Even when they didn't always behave well, I could find something in them to rejoice about. The book spans many years and sometimes goes back and forth in time, but it is always understandable. The characters are incredibly real; people you know, or people you walk past without knowing. In a small area, you 'know' things about people even if you don't know them personally. And there are lots of things you don't know, and can't know. Elizabeth Strout tells us some of these things about the people in her book, and we come away from it better people for knowing. We learn to care about these folks, and hopefully this will remain with us, and help us to care for those among us in our lives.
I marvelled over the language, the use of words, the way the author put those words together. Whether describing a person or the natural world, we can see just what the author wants us to see.
The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor. The midafternoon sun hit them in a wide wash of light where they grew on the hill, almost down to the water. From the kitchen window, Olive could see them: yellow, white, pink, bright red. She had planted them at different depths and they had a lovely unevenness to them. When a breeze bent them slightly, it seemed like an underwater field of something magical, all those colors floating out there.
And how the whole world can change with just a few words. A couple in their mid-seventies, who seem very happy, and all that we hope to be in those years run into acquaintances at a concert.
Mrs. Lydia said to Bob, "You've retired now, since we last saw you? Wasn't it funny, meeting you in the Miami airport the way we did?"...
"When was this?" Jane said. "Miami?"
I felt a knot in my stomach.
I hope you will read this if you haven't yet. It is a rare and exquisite book, and I loved it. Please also read Maggie's review. I'm sure there are others out there but this is the only one I've read (and I waited to do so until I finished the book, and finished writing my own). Please let me know if you have reviewed it, with a link, and I'll post it.