Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, tells the life of a difficult woman and her life in a small town in Maine. Olive is unlikeable, changeable, with a horrid temper, but who is given to flashes of wisdom. Her husband is weak, happy, bland. Her son hates her.
All other mothers in the book are a. alcoholics, b. mentally ill, c. homicidal, or d. all of the above. All men are grey, uninspiring, whiny, kind, have lovely hands. All children are desperate, given to dying in horrible ways like anorexia, or car accidents, or are homicidal and stab a woman 29 times.
Huzzah, I say. Bring it on. Life is often dark and cheerless in small Maine towns. I know, having been raised in a small Massachusetts town. It can be claustrophobic, everyone knowing your every slip-up, knowing your parents for years, guessing at your sex life or job history or minor problems.
But not EVERYONE in town needs to be gassed. I understand this book has been made into an HBO miniseries, something that makes me wonder if, like the characters in the book, we all enjoy watching other people’s hardships in an overwhelming surge of schadenfreude. I can’t imagine watching the series. Dickens did hard lives, and did them better – because in his stories he remembered what is, for me, the necessity of these hard luck stories – the possibility or sniff of redemption. Or growth. Or light.
True, Olive does get to feel lust returning at the very very end of the book (spoiler alert), but even that is so muted as to have all the joy sucked right out of it.
The book is well-written, though given to occasional flights of phrase that my editor self wants to pluck out with tweezers, and it’s been nominated for many prizes, including the Pulitzer!!!, reinforcing my hypothesis that you can only win a prize if you write about totally dysfunctional families in towns filled with them and IF you throw in a storm or two.
To add to my irritation, my copy was printed in tiny light grey type that made me strain to read it, so I got a tiny eye headache to add to my feelings of frustration.
Do read this book – it’s worth a read – just don’t read it if you are depressed or recovering from a Christmas holiday season crowded with dysfunctional drunken relatives.
As for me, I think I’ll pass it on anonymously. Perhaps it will find a home with someone who is overly cheerful.