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Family Matters
A retired schoolteacher lives a life of quiet desperation.

Reviewed by Molly Gloss
Sunday, June 8, 2008

OLIVE KITTERIDGE

By Elizabeth Strout

Random House. 270 pp. $25

Elizabeth Strout's new book, Olive Kitteridge, is that hybrid thing: "a novel in stories." She places all her stories in and around a small coastal town in Maine, and she brings the character of Olive Kitteridge onstage in every one, even if only briefly. But what you begin to realize, as these carefully crafted, individual pieces accumulate, is that together they shape the arc of a narrative, and that the narrative is nothing less than the whole of Olive Kitteridge's life. A novel, yes, in stories.

Olive is not an easy woman to like. She's prone to sudden, stormy moods; she's often judgmental and angry, quick to voice her many deep resentments. Her son, Christopher, suffers from depression as he struggles to escape his mother's overbearing presence. Impatience, regret and even repugnance run like seams of coal through her marriage to Henry, the good-natured town pharmacist.

" 'Do you know, Ollie,' he said, looking up, his eyes tired, the skin around them red. 'In all the years we've been married, all the years, I don't believe you've ever once apologized. For anything.'

"She flushed immediately and deeply. She could feel her face burn beneath the sunshine that fell upon it. 'Well, sorry, sorry, sorry,' she said, taking her sunglasses from where they'd been resting on top of her head, and putting them back on. 'What exactly are you saying?' she asked. 'What in hell ails you? What in hell is this all about? Apologies? Well, I'm sorry then. I am sorry I'm such a hell of a rotten wife.' "

As the 13 stories unfold -- each one taking its time, thick with the well-observed details of ordinary lives and the nakedness of inner minds -- Olive is revealed to us as a woman wounded, as well as wounding. Her marriage to Henry, we begin to see, has a strong, if slender, vein of love entwined with that coal. And Olive is capable of surprising us with moments of profound compassion and insight -- moments that, although surprising, are never less than convincing, as when Olive gets word that a young woman's husband has died: " 'Oh, you poor child,' she said, in a voice Henry would always remember -- filled with such dismay that all her outer Olive-ness seemed stripped away. 'You poor, poor child.' "

These stories are shot through with sorrow and with quiet despair. A cocktail lounge pianist is visited by an old lover, who cruelly whispers the details of a long ago betrayal. A married man and a widow are helpless to stop a young girl from starving herself to death. The peaceful years at the end of a couple's long marriage are overturned by the accidental revealing of a secret. And perhaps most affecting, a man sits in a car staring out at the rocky Maine seacoast, planning his suicide in the town where his mother carried out hers: "He would lie down on the pine needles and put the blanket over him. If it was the man of the house who found him -- so what? The woman who had hung the pink impatiens? She wouldn't look for long. But to have a child -- no, Kevin could not abide the thought of any child discovering what he had discovered; that his mother's need to devour her life had been so huge and urgent as to spray remnants of corporeality across the kitchen cupboards."

Strout has a fine hand on the page. In "Pharmacy," she deftly juggles present and past as she weaves a complicated story through decades, returning every so often to the warp thread of a particular Sunday morning late in Henry Kitteridge's life. A portentous phrase -- "And then: On a Monday morning . . . " -- slips by like the brush of a moth's wing, its full meaning not revealed until pages later.

In "Winter Concert," Strout's ear is unerring for the ways people speak of terrible things. "He didn't answer this but only looked at her with his head still back against the headrest, as though he had fallen out of some tree and lay now, unable to sit up, his eyes rolling sideways to look at her with exhaustion and terrible sadness. 'All that matters is you, Janie. She doesn't matter to me. Seeing her -- it didn't matter to me. I just did it because she wanted me to.' "

There are glimmers of warmth, of human connection, in even the darkest of these stories. Strout's benevolence toward her characters forms a slender bridge between heartbreak and hope, a dimly glimpsed path through minefields of despair. The stifled sorrows she writes of here are as real as our own, and as tenderly, compassionately understood. ยท

Molly Gloss is the author of four novels, including, most recently, "The Hearts of Horses."

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