Olive Kitteridge aged 83 (or 84, I remember her telling ‘The Poet’, but memory is fallible is a theme here, so I’m in good company) is brash, outspoken, abrasive. All those adjectives we can associate with the orange-haired monster in the Whitehouse—those are more Olive’s words than mine—but Olive, a fictional creation of Elizabeth Strout is a human figure because she never stops questioning others or herself. To be human is always to be plural. To be godlike is to be humble. The beginning of humanity comes at the end of this collection of interconnected stories set in the fictional coastal town of Cosby, Maine—twelve hours from New York, in other words, Middle America, also a fictional construct—when Olive writes a note to herself that sticks in her head:
I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.
Olive was married to Henry and they had a boy Christopher and so it goes on. The story of living and dying. Henry dies. Olive was in her seventies then, estranged from her son, not keen on Christopher’s wife, Ann, who already had a kid from her previous marriage and seems to pop out her breasts to feed one grandkid after another in a way that is unsightly and unseemly. When they visit it’s not happy families. ‘Motherless Child’ is the story title. That’s all the clue you need, but had more to do with Olive’s relationship with her son. I could quote Tolstoy here about happy families being all the same and unhappy families being all different, but I won’t. I’m reminded of a put-down remark by Jack Kennison, whose story features in the opening tale, ‘Arrested’, a former lecturer at Harvard with two PHDs, he accuses Olive of being ‘a reverse snob’. He’s married to her by this time and he may have had a point.
I’m ‘a reverse snob’ too. Jack, for example, flies first class, but Olive refuses and is hunched up in a seat beside a fat man. This is America. Every second person is fat, including Jack, but he has little sympathy for her. His attitude that they’ve not got long to live and if they’ve got the money—spend it, seems more sensible. Put bluntly, I’m on Olive’s side here. I don’t like or trust rich people. Then again, I don’t know any. But reverse snobbery works in other subtle ways too.
I quite like Elizabeth Strout’s compendium of short stories. On the cover a quote for her British audience from the Sunday Times, ‘One of America’s finest writers’. Strout has won the Pulitzer Prize. One morning Olive is having breakfast at the marina. The waitress has a fat arse and Olive doesn’t like her or think she provides good service. She sees a girl Andrea sitting by herself. She goes across and introduced herself, Andrea is a poet laureate of the United States, but a ‘lonesome girl’ that she taught math and wasn’t expected to go far or do much with her life. Later, Olive discovers something about herself she doesn’t like, she wouldn’t have sat with the girl unless she knew she was famous. I wouldn’t have read this book unless others had read it and recommended it. That’s a kind of snobbism. Being part of the gang. Olive also though the poet-laureates poems were largely ‘crap’. But Andrea gets her own back by writing a poem about Olive’s life, holds a mirror up to her face and Olive realises what the poet says is essentially true.
I don’t think Elizabeth Strout’s writing is crap. But if I was as honest as Olive I do wonder why she is so admired and has won so many prizes. My guess if it was self-published, in competition with eight million authors, without all the other ballyhoo it wouldn’t do that great. But like Olive with ‘The Poet’ I might need to take a long hard look at myself. I value honesty in characters such as Olive. I admire it in real life too, but nobody’s perfect, although some writing can seem so. I wouldn’t say this is the case here. Read on.