Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

Looking for gentle wisdom and beautiful writing? Try this collection of short stories, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. How I wish I’d read this book when I was younger, back when I read novels to try to understand the world and why people did what they did. These stories tease open the secret chambers of people’s hearts, revealing everyday pettiness and unexpected generosity. In some cases, we find motivations that are hidden even from the person herself.

If I were teaching a writing class, I’d assign this book as an original way to create character. Olive is a retired math teacher living in a small town in Maine. She has a difficult relationship with her son. Her husband, Henry, runs the town pharmacy. Although Olive is only a bit player in some of these stories, we grasp her essence by understanding what’s happened to her former students, by seeing how Henry befriends his mousy assistant in the pharmacy, by hearing her exchange a few words with her neighbors at the grocery store or a local concert. We watch Olive learn in the most unlikely way that a small kindness reaps a greater one.

In a small town everyone knows each other’s business. More than that, their lives are so closely tied up with each other’s that commonalities emerge, as a couple after years of living together come to resemble each other. By exploring the ramifications of a community’s everyday life, this book complements last week’s David Adams Richards book, which dwelt on the tragic consequences of gossip and boredom and self-importance. The tragedies here are smaller but no less painful. They are lightened by those rare moments of grace, when one person recognizes another’s pain or loneliness and speaks a gentle word to soothe it.

What I valued most was the insight into the long marriages, the ebb and flow of affection and loyalty. There are some young people in the book, but most of the stories explore the consciousness of older people, as for example those who have lost a spouse and feel the lack of someone to tell about the small things that have happened during the day.

With Harmon, we sense his unexpected melancholy now that the children are grown and gone. Although he struggled for years with the chaos they brought in their wake, keeping the house in a confusion of bickering and lost ice skates, he misses them now. Not his wife Bonnie, though. She’s taken off: joined a book club, written a recipe book, reinvented her life. She makes things: braids rugs, creates wreaths from dried roses and bayberry, sews quilted jackets. In Harmon’s hardware store, the customers talk about each other, about their hip problems, and he sees their loneliness. He finds himself visiting Daisy Foster, a recent widow. He brings her a doughnut.

It doesn’t sound like much, but really, it is. Patiently, Strout pursues her characters, sometimes catching them in a net, worn soft with years of use; sometimes slipping in the sharp filet knife and laying bare the hollow bones. She captures familiar turns of phase and spreads them before us: “Now was that so hard to do?” “Say, isn’t that something?” Each story is full of small truths, like realising you want to hear that someone is having more trouble with their child than you.

These are working people. We see them in their jobs, with their families, out for meal or a party. We are presented with life in its entirety, life in the round: petty jealousies, small prejudices and intolerances. Yet throughout the book there is, not a sweetness, but a current of acceptance, bracing and salty and aware. We are constantly aware that these people, however flawed, however small their lives, have value.

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