I really loved Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. This is the first book of linked stories I’ve read, and I liked the genre more than I expected to. I’m not sure whether this is because Strout does a particularly good job with it or because I like the genre for itself, but in this case it worked beautifully. I can be uncertain about reading short story collections because it feels as though they require so much energy: you have to orient yourself to new characters and new situations each and every time. You have to do that with linked stories too, but with Olive Kitteridge there is enough to tie all the stories together that I felt a sense of coherence and wholeness that was satisfying.
Olive herself is the main thread that ties the book together, although there are others; she appears in each chapter, sometimes as the main character and sometimes only briefly, as a minor character in someone else’s story. The first chapter is from the point of view of Olive’s husband, Henry, a man other people in their town feel pity for, because Olive is known for being difficult — moody, unhappy, harsh, critical. But Henry, in spite of longings he feels for other kinds of relationships, loves her, a love that is a source of mystery for other characters and for the reader, too.
Olive lives in the town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine, which is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and secrets are hard to keep. She was a junior high math teacher — retired now — of the sort who terrified her students with her prickly teaching persona. She and Henry have one son, Christopher, whom they both love deeply, but not necessarily in a healthy way; he feels that she has smothered him and it’s no surprise when his new wife whisks him off to California, to get as far away from the in-laws as possible.
One of the things that is so wonderful about the book and about how Strout uses the linked story structure is that we get a satisfyingly complex view of the characters. In one story — one of my favorites — we see into Olive’s mind on her son’s wedding day and watch her as she struggles with having to let her son go to a woman she does not like and listen to that woman mock the dress she is proud of. In other stories, though, we see what other characters think of her — the way they dismiss or fear or marvel at her — and we can compare what it’s like to be someone with a rich and complicated interior life and to see that person from the outside, understanding some things and being bewildered by others. We can see what Olive means to a whole range of people — that she can be a figure of fun, a tragic figure, an overbearing and frightening woman one wants to run away from. And we can also see that she frequently has no idea of all those perceptions people have of her. Other people have no idea what she thinks and feels and suffers, except for glimpses now and then.
Many of the stories are sad, although in a way that is recognizable and true, not overdone. They are about longing, love, relationships gone bad, new relationships attempted, relationships that survive, remarkably; in some cases they are about violence, death, and loss — about a whole range of things that can and do happen to people living together in one place.
The place itself is another thread that holds the book together. Olive and Henry have built their house together and have also built a house for their son, and it is no surprise that they are deeply shaken when their son escapes to California. It’s no surprise that he needs to escape, either. That house was intended as an act of love, but it couldn’t help but appear to Christopher as a prison, Olive’s attempt to keep him at her side, following in her footsteps. Other characters come and go, figuring out who they are as they define themselves against the town that has shaped them. The town changes, but it remains an isolated place that’s beautiful and distinctive, and that is hard to really leave behind.
So yes, I loved this book. It’s beautifully written, emotionally complex, full of nuanced characters, and moving in the stories it tells.