Elizabeth Strout (2016) Olive Kitteridge


Having read (and reviewed) Olive, Again, Anything is Possible and My Name is Lucy Barton in the last few months, Olive Kitteridge is the best Elizabeth Strout novel I’ve read. Some authors, most authors—myself included—tend to write the same story again and again. Different haircuts, shiny shoes, but the same characters appearing again, renewed. From writer to reader there needs to be an emotional resonance that translates into a feeling of rightness. Olive Kitteridge feels right to me.

In other words I liked Olive Kitteridge in a way I didn’t particularly like those other books. It’s not that I disliked them. They were agreeable enough to me, but it was more of a feeling of so what? No particular, dazzle.  I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

I don’t classify myself as a writer. Writing is a verb, rather than a noun for me. If you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t you’re not. In the same way that Angela O’Meara, in the story ‘The Piano Player’, four times a week plonks herself down at the piano in the Warehouse Bar and Grill and tries to get inside the music, I try and get inside words and write stuff most folk don’t read, apart from the locals in my ABCtales gang hut. Angela is a background noise to most folk in the town. A familiar figure that needs to be drunk so her nerves don’t show. With her red hair and slim figure, she was beautiful once, and in the right light is beautiful still. Her talent is innate. Her fingers need to be busy. She produced music, but isn’t going anywhere or coming from anywhere, but in the process she’s picked up a married man that loved her so much, couldn’t live without her, but somehow managed for twenty-odd years to do just that. One day Angela picks up the phone and phones him at home and simply says, she can’t do it anymore. She goes back to playing the piano. Life in her small—fictional—town goes on without her. There’s a pretty much perfect feeling of what is and what if to the story that seems true.

Olive Kitteridge, the local maths teachers with her big voice and big frame and size ten shoes, was someone most kids were scared of. As in the other novels (or collections of short stories) she does not feature in some of the stories, other than as a walk-on character. Support act to the main storyline.

In ‘Incoming Tide,’ for example, Kevin Coulson returns to his childhood home and parks near the marina looking out at the sailboats and shifting tide. He’s also been watching a childhood friend, a pretty girl, Patty Howe, with a kind of yearning that reaches towards the past. Then Olive Kitteridge is just there, in ways she often just is, a marker like the lighthouse, staring through the windscreen.

Mrs. Kitteridge. Holy shit. She looked exactly the same as she had in the classroom in the seventh grade, the forthright, high-cheekboned expression; her hair was still dark. He had liked her; not everyone had.

The story pivots on what Kevin tells Mrs.Kittiridge—he’s a doctor now, but no longer practices medicine—‘That’s pretty impressive,’ Olive tells him.

She is a woman given to plain speaking. That’s part of her attraction to the reader. She tells it like it is. The woman her son Christopher marries, for example, she recognises as intelligent enough, she’s also a doctor, but mean. Her son’s next wife, Ann, who she goes to visit in New York, has already fathered two kids to different men, and she’s bigger than Olive, which she’s not used to, but also essentially, dumb. But there’s another quality Olive recognises that should never be dismissed, kindness.  Ann is kind.

Olive isn’t so sure she is kind, but the reader knows better. Olive thinks herself as ‘cut from the same piece of bad cloth’ as Jim O’Casey, whom she would have had an affair with and would have left her husband, Henry, and her son, had O’Casey asked. But he never did. So she never did either. But it allowed her to better understand her husband’s requited love for mouse-like Denise who worked hand-in-fist in the pharmacy with him. Nothing sexual happened. As nothing sexual happened with O’Casey. Just an understanding that there’s no understanding love.

Perhaps that’s one of the attractions of Kitteridge’s books. Nothing sexual does happen. Incest, rape, arson and murder does take place, but it’s always off-scream and safely in the past.

Olive recalls she was 44 years old when she didn’t have the affair with O’Casey, didn’t run away with him—because he never asked. He drove into a tree shortly afterwards and was aged 53. Olive grows older with each story in the book. As do her characters. In New York visiting her son and Ann and their brood of children, the older Olive, aged 72, realises that it would have been such a mistake to leave Henry. But she still would have, because she thought she knew best.

Olive is 74, and her husband Henry is dead, when she meets Jack Kennison. She goes a walk in the morning to pass the time, to kill time and hopes it won’t add to her lifespan of misery when she stumbles over him.

‘Jack Kennison stared out at the river. ‘I was walking. I saw the bench and felt tired. I don’t sleep well. So I sat down and started to feel dizzy. I put my legs between my knees and the next thing I knew I was lying on the ground, with some woman squacking at me, “Are you dead?”

Olive’s face became warm. “You seem less dead every minute,’ she said. “Do you think you can walk?”

“…My wife died in December,” he said.

Olive watched the river. “Then you’re in hell,” she said.

“I’m in hell.”

Loneliness and a sense of the purposelessness of Olive’s life give her insight and increased compassion for others, like it, or not, including, ‘flub-a-dub’ Jack Kennison. He taught at Harvard and is an outsider to their coast town. She suspects, he shamefacedly, voted for Trump, whom she quickly categorises as a ‘moron’ with his piggy eyes and less sense than road kill. Even Reagan, that old faker, had more sense than Trump. These are asides, Kennison is in the same kind of pain she suffers. The perfect meet-greet, might not make the perfect elderly couple, but there’s an inevitability about it. No apple-pie endings, but I like that too.  

I like Olive Kitteridge, she’s one of those woman you kinda know. I guess that’s the attraction. Nostalgia. What we have lost. What is to come, the seven ages of old age. Hell. We might even find love.   

unwriterly advice

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In the bestseller written by Elizabeth Strout called My Name is Lucy Barton, the protagonist idealises another writer called Sarah Payne. That’s a long sentence. I’ll break it down.

Elizabeth Strout is Lucy Barton is Sarah Payne. ‘All life amazes me,’ is the last line in the book. And in the Buddhist world we all are each other (until we reject the illusion of Suchness and reach the shore of Nirvana, which isn’t really a shore and isn’t really Nirvaha, but the Great Void, which isn’t nothingness, or much of suchness either).

Elizabeth Strout >Lucy Barton> Sarah Payne (all writers, fictional and real).

Here’s the advice from one of them, or all of them. Take it with a lump of suchness.

‘And I think sometimes of Sarah Payne…how exhausted she became, teaching. And I think how she spoke of the fact that we only have one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is.’  

Writers that teach aren’t writers that write. In a way they’re second class. Writers that can’t write, teach, sutra.  More than that, teaching leaches the goodness out of Sarah Payne’s (pain’s) soul, so she can’t write. Discuss?

In terms of economics that’s true. The economic cost of doing something is not doing something else. When we do one thing, we can’t do the other. Although, of course, our bookshelves groan with learned professors. Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Caroll), C.S Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and  Umberto Eco, for example, that teach and write. That’s the exception to the rule argument.

Is it an exception or is it a rule?

Nobody has asked me to teach and nobody asks me to write. But usually when I read a novel in which the protagonist is a writer or librarian (Stephen King’s protagonists are often writers) then I groan.

This ties in with the one story I continually write and rewrite. And in these fictional worlds none of my protagonists are writers. For a good example of a writer that continually writes the same story, his characters having different haircuts – think Irvine Welsh after Trainspotting. And he’s not even Welsh. He’s Scottish like me and tends to write about characters that think writers are well up themselves and should come down and get fucking at it. And I’m not even a fan of Irvine Welsh, I prefer Stephen King. And I’m not a fan of him either. The problem of being a writer talking about writing is to most folk it’s fucking boring and shows a lack of imagination. I’m a connoisseur because all I do is write and read stuff. I’m an exception to the rule, which isn’t a rule.  

The historian and writer Robert A. Caro nailed it when he was talking about writing and farming and how you need to pick up the vocabulary and live it to appreciate it fully. There are two ways of learning, lived experience or reading about it. I tend towards the latter. Writers have their noses pressed against a keyboard. If you want to talk about  The Snow Leopard live it like Peter Matthiessen and your vocabulary will be rich as buffalo shit, or watch David Attenborough and leave extreme environments to other writers that are less desk-bound.

If we only have one story, I’ve not perfected it yet. Maybe I never will, not in this lifetime. The secret of good writing is the secret of bad writing. You need to keep repeating the same mistakes again and again until you move on to a higher plane and realise none of it matters. And you must carry this secret into your next story.

Here’s Lucy Barton pondering the nature of time.

I think of Jeremy telling me I had to be ruthless as a writer. And I think how I did not go visit my brother and sister and my parents because I was always working on a story and there was never enough time. (But I didn’t want to go either.) There was never enough time, and then later I knew if I stayed in my marriage I would not write another book, not the kind I wanted to, and there is that as well. But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me…

The ultimate truth in Buddhahood is understanding and appreciating the permanent nature of eternity. The starting point is self. Arthur Miller was willing to concede that Timebends and all things may fall away, but he was going to write about them anyway. His one true story, was many storied.  

‘What writer makes money?’ Lucy Barton asks.

Certainly not me. Or 99% of other writers. I guess it’s an occupation that’s not an occupation, that’s doomed to failure for the masses.

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do.’ Philip Larkin writes This Be The Verse.

Lucy Barton writes about writing about her family. ‘I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw them too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts. My husband said, “But you don’t even like them.”

Any writer knows, nice people are boring. Their great secret is they’ve got nothing to hide. Molla tells Lucy Barton what we already know. For every Jesus we need a Judas.  

‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about your story. You only have one.’

Molla hasn’t got a secret. Lucy Barton has, she’s a writer.

A writer’s job is the same as Buddah’s, to hold every moment and to let it go, simultaneously. Here is Lucy Barton watching her dad, inhabiting him.

I remember only watching my father’s face so high above me, and I saw his lips become reddish with that candied apple that he ate because he had to…

And I remember this: he was interested in what he was watching. He had an interest in it.

Pay attention. Here’s Sarah Payne the writer giving Lucy Barton some advice about writing what you want to write, but the real advice comes at the end after rallying against stupid people that fail to understand.

‘Never ever defend your work.’   

It seems counterintuitive, but even a fool you don’t like can point out you’ve got your shoes on the wrong feet. In my writing it happens to me all the time. Insight is not a closed gate, but a gate you must leave open. Pay attention to your faults. Then with good karma you may not repeat them indefinitely. It’s nothing personal.

At the end of all lifetimes is the question a disgruntled admirer asks Sarah Payne.

He said, “What is your job as a writer of fiction?”

And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.

Amen. Go forth and multiply words.  

Elizabeth Strout (2016) My Name is Lucy Barton.

I’ve a tendency to read short books like this quickly. I should have reviewed it quickly too, when it was fresh baked in my mind. I thought the last line in the book was ‘My name is Lucy Barton.’

Wrong. On the same page, (three from the end). ‘But this is my story.’ A first-person account of her life.

‘And yet it is the story of many. It is Molla’s story, my college roommate’s. It may be the story of the Pretty Nicely Girls. Mommy, Mom!’

The last line reads, ‘All life amazes me.’

The narrator is an oddity, everywoman, who tells the stories of every women. Lucy Barton is not a closed book the reader finds, but a successful author. What makes her successful is the attention, the love, she gives to other people’s stories. She models herself on an author she meets in New York, Sarah Payne (get it pain).

Payne offers Lucy Barton (and other would-be writers) nuggets of wisdom about writing. If I were to use a big, little, word I’d call it subtext.

Issues of class and gender are woven into other people’s stories. Virginia Woolf’s maxim that every woman needs “a room of one’s own” to write pretty much covers it. Money matters. Lack of it leaves the narrator terrified she might need to go home.

‘This is the 1980s’ she tells us. And in some ways it’s also the story of New York, up until the planes crash into the Twin Towers. It touches, for example, on issues of Vietnam and on the AIDs epidemic. But it might well be early twentieth century, her mum had never been on a plane until she visits Lucy and her father fixed farm machinery. Dirt poor, they were isolated by poverty and they smelled. Even locals looked down on them. Her father, a former second world war soldier, we come to recognise, suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Sins of the father passed to the sons. Her brother took to sleeping in a barn and reading to pigs awaiting slaughter and her sister married, unhappily, it seems, as quickly as she could. Lucy escaped that aching loneliness that writing found a way of filling.

The book begins with Lucy confined to a hospital for nine weeks. ‘A simple story, to get her appendix out.’  

Coherence and the backwards and forwards motion of time are difficult for any writer to master. The Man Booker Prize 2016 nominee, written by Elizabeth Strout makes it seem easy. Read on.