Elizabeth Strout (2021) Oh William!

I’m not a great fan of Elizabeth Strout. Yet I’ve read most of the books in this series (My Name is Lucy Barton, Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again, and Anything is Possible).William Gerhardt who Lucy was married to for twenty years, and had two daughters with, before they separated and she married David ( the cellist, and love of her life, who died last year) would explain it in terms of compulsion.

William admitted he had affairs when he was married to Lucy. That was connected to his sense of wealth and entitlement. His affair with Pam Carlson, for example was more of an afterthought. Lucy was friendly with her, but didn’t know they had an affair until he admitted it on their road trip. But the affairs didn’t mean much. Pam didn’t mean much. But he’d loved Lucy.  He questioned the notion of free will as beyond banal.

Lucy, as a successful writer, questioned everything, including whether writing is a vocation (the answer was Yes, in My Name is Lucy Barton, even for the 99% that made no money from the albatross of their gift) the same as being a priest or nun, or whether you could really know yourself. William had been her ‘rock’ (clichéd, I know) when they were married. But now she wondered if she created that myth to sustain herself. The questions Lucy asks herself are the questions we ask ourselves (plural) and the engine of their road trip to find out more about William having a sister. What I mean by that is he found out about her indirectly from a present he didn’t want from a wife that had left him about tracing his ancestors.  

Stylistically, Lucy traces out an idea, and qualifies it by frequent, ‘what I mean by that’ as if she is having a conversation with the reader.

Unlike William, and the majority of her readers (who tend to be women and therefore more empathetic) she doesn’t come from money and tends to be insecure in ways many would recognise, and this spills over into panic attacks and depression (which are big business for the pharmaceutical industry).

There have been a few time—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet so vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave the house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)…There was no escape.  

Authority as a writer, Lucy suggests comes from somewhere without and within. Somehow we’d recognise it. And she echoes other writers such as Robert M. Pirsig search for quality in the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In a nudge to the reader of the absurdity of this she suggests William may have lost his sense of authority when he shaved off his moustache. Their two daughters had wondered—perhaps hoped— Lucy and William might somehow get back together again. But his mystique, with his moustache, is gone. Oh William! Is already sniffing around other women and it’s like old times with him asking her to vet them via Google.

They’ve been on a journey and they’re back to where they started. It’s not T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, but the end-of-life secret of Elisabeth Strout/Lucy Barton isn’t what she thinks, but what she feels…What I mean by that…

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.   

Elizabeth Strout (2019) Olive, Again

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.