Olive Kitteridge, In Which Fiction Shows Us What It Can Do
Review of Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories by Elizabeth Strout.
This is a marvelous little book and remained so in both of the languages in which I read it — Italian first (translation by Silvia Castoldi) and then in English. It is understated and yet (if this isn’t a contradiction in terms) vivid in its depiction of the so-called “negative” emotions: sadness, loneliness, fear, disappointment, regret. Understated because Strout never, for a single moment, allows her characters the usual flights of confessional self-dramatization that are so ubiquitous in contemporary fiction. Olive Kitteridge, in particular, is as fatally flawed as any tragic heroine in literature ever has been, and yet her hard, cold center is what allows her to keep going even after life hands her the wrong thing every time. Olive isn’t optimistic; she isn’t hopeful; she doesn’t visualize happiness or look on the bright side. Still, she manages to love life – a little, at times, when she can, and to do what’s possible (which isn’t always a great deal) to attend to the fellow-pain of her companions in an existence she finds “baffling.”
The device of “a novel in stories” takes a moment to get used to: in some chapters Olive is foregrounded; in others, she barely merits a mention. But then you see what Strout is up to: by circling Olive constantly with her narrative camera, by making her at times a supernumerary and at times the hot, agonized center of the tale, Strout gives Olive many more dimensions than three. The point isn’t some crass, Crash-like effort to make Olive more “understandable” (as if “being understood” were the highest compliment a human being could receive), but rather to place her in the context of lives she has deeply affected and lives whose surface she has barely skimmed. Olive does not matter much to everyone who matters to her; the results of Olive’s encounters with others are not symmetrical. And that fact must resonate, because it’s an ache famiilar to anyone who has considered honestly the parts he or she plays on the stages of other people’s lives.