"Olive Kitteredge" by Elizabeth Strout

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"Olive Kitteridge" consists of a series of short pieces written about the personal and internal lives of folks in a town on the coast of Maine. These glimpses show us so clearly, in language unerring and deceptively simple, folk that aspire against all hope for love, fulfillment, even survival. Sometimes the piece illuminates an episode from Olive's life, sometimes Olive plays only a cameo in this or that person's current crisis.

And the crises abound in this collection. Lives and marriages and families tread the razor's edge, hoping for the day when that blade can become something a little more stable, a little less threatening. Mostly, though, we get a character's forced accommodation; he or she must give up the grand hope or design for the lesser but more realistic outcome. Disappointment, even desperation, inevitably follow, and Olive is no exception. People struggle with inner demons here, some more severe than others. Olive's own demons put her at odds with others, often for no overt reason. Olive has little patience for anything or anyone, especially after her affable husband Henry becomes ill. Her son, from whom she feels estranged, and with reason, invites her at length to New York to meet his second wife - he didn't tell her he'd married again - and after Olive loses her composure and her patience, he confronts her calmly with the fact of how difficult she is. To Olive, it's an outrage, and she feels cast adrift again.

Olive Kitteridge the character is one exceptionally fine fictive creation. We come to know her, loudmouthed and irascible, through a series of encounters, and we know how she will react in any situation. This very slowly and very subtly changes over the course of the stories, and in this under-the-surface mutability Strout performs her ineffable and exraordinary trick: Olive the obdurate, Olive the obstreperous, begins to discover, very, very late in life, what it might mean to acknowledge her own and someone else's need.

Ms Strout takes us along at a careful pace, but doesn't spare the emotions. These oblique peeks into these tortured internal lives and dialogues capture us and capture our sympathy. And Ms Strout has certainly captured an avid fan.
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