As heroines go, Olive Kitteridge is about as far away from a Disney princess as Maine is from Florida. Before her retirement, the gruff 60-something was the seventh-grade math teacher that kids were scared of. And the years havent exactly mellowed her. Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology, a former co-worker thinks. (Imagine that Miss Viola Swamp, the witchy substitute teacher from the childrens classic Miss Nelson is Missing, moved to rural Maine and got married.)
And yet, as she stumps her way through Elizabeth Strouts translucent new novel in stories, "Olive Kitteridge" (Random House, 270 pages, $25), shes absolutely beautiful.
Maisy Mills, Maine, a small coastal community, is the kind of town where to make good, children have to move away. Town is the church, and the grange hall, and the grocery store, and these days the grocery store could use a coat of paint. Strout (author of Amy and Isabelle) creates a melancholy world where parents pine for their grown children, spouses grieve in marriages grown cold with misunderstanding, and yet where hope, humor, and a kind of quiet endurance remain.
Olive and her gentle husband, Henry, appear in almost every story, though sometimes just glimpsed from a distance. For example, in The Piano Player, they just pass through someone elses heartbreak, on their way to dinner.
Both the humor and the melancholy are evident in the opening story, Pharmacy, where Olives husband, Henry, remembers his days running a local store before being forced to sell out to a national chain. About 20 years earlier, Henry had invited his young assistant, Denise, and her husband to dinner, in defiance of Olives wishes. (Not keen on it, she pronounces when he first mentions the possibility.) Dinner takes place over several pages of simmering hostility and placating niceness, brilliantly underplayed by Strout. Olive makes the couple welcome by slapping plates of baked beans in front of them for an entree, while Henry nervously makes chitchat. For dessert, they were each handed a blue bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sliding in its center. Vanillas my favorite, Denise said. Is it, said Olive.
But Strout makes a reader feel protective, even tender, toward Olive despite her prickliness. Olives father committed suicide; she battled years of depression while her son was growing up; and shes still worried about that son, Christopher, now a middle-aged podiatrist. Shed been through some things, but never mind. She straightened her back. Other people had been through things, too.
Her fraught relationship with Christopher is one of the books biggest heartbreaks. (A reader would want to hug Olive, if she werent likely to swat one away like a low-flying bat.) Take Christophers wedding day. Olive sewed her green and pink floral dress herself, and she loved it. Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fros; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding .
But during the reception, Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law gossiping about her and making fun of the dress. Humiliated, Olive wishes she could tell her, Listen, Dr. Sue, deep down there is a thing inside me, and sometimes it wells up like the head of a squid and shoots blackness through me. I havent wanted to be this way, but so help me, I have loved my son. As that feels impossible to her, she consoles herself by ruining one of Sues sweaters with black magic marker and stealing a shoe.
Each of the 13 tales serves as an individual microcosm of small-town life, with its gossip, small kindnesses, and everyday tragedies. Not all the minor characters stand out the way Henry and Olive do, and there are a pile of them to keep straight by the end. I also couldnt quite place how one story, Ship in a Bottle, meshed with the rest. But those are small flaws far outweighed by the books compassion and intelligence.
That compassion finds an unlikely source in Olive. Despite her conflicted feelings about her fellow man She didnt like to be alone. Even more, she didnt like being with people she ultimately comes down on the side of human decency. In Incoming Tide, she helps a former student whos contemplating suicide and, in another story, comforts a grieving widow who discovers a particularly nasty betrayal on the day of her husbands funeral. And after Henry is incapacitated by a stroke, she visits him every day, bringing their dog to the nursing home parking lot so it can lick Henrys hands.
When Olives story is over, she doesnt end with bitterness, but equal parts gratitude and regret. It baffled her, the world. She didnt want to leave it yet. Readers will know just how she feels.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.