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Olive Kitteridge    by Elizabeth Strout order for
Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, Audio, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Elizabeth Strout is the author of the award-winning Abide With Me and Amy and Isabel. Her uniquely formatted, thirteen-story novel is set in the small New England coastal town of Crosby, Maine, with a character, Oliver Kitteridge linking accounts. The town residents all know ex-schoolteacher Olive. Often she is completely involved in the story. At others times there is a candid appearance, and sometimes she is simply discussed by others.

Strout delves into the reality of daily life, touching on depression, suicide, in-laws, children, aging, hatred and love, deaths, eating disorders, infidelities and divorces, cruelties spoken or in thought. She also inserts humor, as in A Different Road, which brought to my mind the PBS comedy series Keeping Up Appearances, starring English actress Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket. Strout's delivery of scenes and lines brought Hyacinth to mind when Olive desperately needs to find a privy. The closest one that Henry can drive to is in a hospital emergency room; after all the damsel is in dire need!

The opening story, entitled Pharmacy, focuses on sociable husband Henry, his steadfast attention to customers, and his romantic feelings for a new assistant. Every morning, now-retired Henry passes the location taken over by a drugstore-chain that sells more than medicine and sees trees bulldozed for a parking lot. Henry reminisces, 'You get used to things, without getting used to things.'

In A Little Burst, Olive's heart hurts as podiatrist son Christopher marries for the first time, 'right out of the blue'. Mother muses on the things the new wife knows nothing about, such as his first-grade nosebleed and hives when afraid to take a spelling test. On the other hand, Olive is glad she won't have to worry that Christopher will grow into a lonely old man after she and Henry are gone. Olive's view is that life depends on what she calls big bursts and little bursts. 'Big bursts are marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat ... but have dangerous, unseen currents. You need the little bursts as well' - a friendly store clerk, or the waitress who remembers how you like your coffee. Alone in her son's bedroom, she overhears a hurtful conversation about the dress Olive wore for the wedding - it is the new daughter-in-law talking with a friend and mom-in-law does get revenge.

Starving is a potent story of a young anorexic woman, in whom Olive, Harmon, and widow Daisy Foster take an interest, encouraging her to seek help. Basket of Trips, one of my favorites, features a new widow, Marlene Bonney (whose husband died in an accidental hunting accident) and the emotions that affect Olive who's there to lend a hand setting up for after the funeral at the Bonney's house. Olive remembers Ed and Marlene as students, who did not fear their teacher as many of their classmates did. Strout tells us in haunting and tender words, 'Why, after all, did she come here today? ... she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else's sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement.'

Emotive stories include one about Henry in a nursing home, in a post-stroke vegetative state, Olive sitting with him every day, while son Christopher has moved all the way to California. The Piano Player is filled with regrets and loneliness, playing for years at a local lounge, awaiting her married lover, as she drinks vodka. In Incoming Tide, Olive unknowingly helps ex-student Kevin, back for a hometown visit, as he sits in his car planning suicide.

Strout's prose is beautiful, with a deft use of language and a keen momentum in the telling, as she captures the essence of each character. She injects an added twist in the final story River, which casting an unexpected upbeat spotlight on Olive Kitteridge's life. The author grew up in Harpswell, Maine, of which she speaks in an interview by Publisher's Weekly: 'my parents come from eight or nine generations of Maine people. Even though I've been in New York for so many years, there's something deeply familiar to me about that kind of small town. There is a way of life up there that's disappearing ... the pressure inside of me was asking me to write about these people, and it occurs to me that I am sort of documenting the end of an era.'

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