Olive Kitteridge | Elizabeth Strout

My first Strout, which was darker and deeper than I was expecting: nor did I realise it was short stories rather than a novel. So my misconceptions banished, it’s a volume of interlinked stories featuring in one way or another Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher living in a small town in Maine.

No, wait come back! It’s interesting, really!

Let’s try again. A cantankerous elderly woman scares, alienates and/or tyrannises everyone around her. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, to say the least; she does great snark, and her view of herself as loving mother, loyal wife, conscientious neighbour etc bears scant resemblance to the perceptions of those around her. Is that better?

Olive is a bundle of paradoxes, making her infuriating and endearing. We despair of her and root for her. She’s monstrous to her family, but shows great tenderness and compassion to strangers. It’s not possible to say ‘Olive is…’ without a ‘But she’s also…’

To describe her as the central character is also not quite right. Eponymous yes, but she barely figures in some stories. We get her in full close-up and interiority in some, a brief walk-on part in others, and sometimes appears only as a memory. It’s a clever technique to illustrate the disparity between how we see ourselves and are seen by others, a theme I liked. We see a lot of different sides to Olive at various times in her life, often quite awful, but interspersed with enough flashes of vulnerability and wry humour to keep us on side.

Small-town America stories live or die by their characters. Strout is excellent on character without relying on stereotypes. There’s plenty of human interest without sociology case studies, kooky/gothic or family saga, and plenty of emotional depth, especially loss, longing and regret, without being cloying. Coastal New England provides a strong sense of place; the ever-changing weather, seascape and skies are a perfect backdrop for the stories’ emotional dynamics, often starting out bright and warm until clouds gather (literal and/or metaphorical), the wind gets up, and you’re feeling distinct chilly by the end.

There are major life dramas, silent interior tectonic shifts, and mundane domestic stuff, all of which feel very true, and kudos to the author for hitting all the notes in that range, especially within a single short story. More kudos for writing difficult older women in their complexity. All very well done and highly competent, without massively engaging me emotionally. I admired the style and craft more than I was gripped but that’s a reflection on me, not the author. Recommended nonetheless.