Tag Archives: dysfunctional families

Olive Kitteridge, or, honestly, how many horrible people can you fit into a book….

n244191Olive 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.

Suburban evils

Just finished Blind Crescent by Michelle Berry, a tale of a group of families living on a suburban cul de sac that follows well on the bizarre family relationships of August:Osago County. Initially in this story, you feel a bit like the suburban site is safely enclosing the residents, but decay is creeping ever closer. There’s risk outside, in the form of a sniper taking out random drivers, and there’s risk on the crescent in the form of a strange new resident and the shifting relationships of the families.
Unlike August, the characters do move, evolve, grow, learn about themselves.

For me this defines what is so much better about books than movies. The interior lives of the characters are explored in Blind Crescent, not so much that we feel we know everything about them, but enough so that each character becomes interesting to us, someone we can care about, feel for. In “August”, we get to know characters (mainly because of some excellent acting), but no one seems to change or develop or even question their motives. In each story there is suffering and angst, but in Berry’s story, the angst serves a purpose. The characters genuinely care about each other in their way, they learn to care more, they re-prioritize.

The book is excellent. At the end, although troubles still remain, you feel as if some sort of resolution is pending. The writing is luminous yet effortlessly so – you don’t pause, a la Stella Gibbon in cold comfort farm to star a sentence for its quality. Instead, you are inexorably drawn forward into the story, nailed to your seat by the details and heart in every sentence. You realize immediately that you are in the hands of a great storyteller and relax, let the story take you.

And then be forever grateful you have left the suburbs behind.