Olive Kitteredge is a collection of stories that constitute a novel. They are not as closely woven together as the multigenerational tales in works by Louise Erdrich, another writer who likes to collect small parts into a larger whole, but Strout has, in telling stories of many characters, put together a compelling portrait of a small town. I was reminded of Spoon River, as we learn some of the secrets each of the main characters protect. Lake Wobegon came to mind, as well, but this is much less folksy. The book most resembles Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s joined tales of alienation in small-town America. Olive Kitteredge is the organizational core connecting the novel's thirteen stories. She appears in each one, sometimes as a primary character, sometimes as a secondary and in others by one of the characters referring to her.
Loneliness is the predominant theme in the town of Crosby, Maine, loneliness or the fear of it. Most of the stories touch on relationships sagging, empty or gone, getting through emotional hard times and wondering if it is all worth the effort. There is a chilly New England sensibility here, characters unable to move past their Yankee reticence. Communication is guarded, often absent, but always made manifest in actions, if not words. Some succumb to their worst impulses. Others find their way through to some sort of reconciliation with life’s travails. Yet hope pops up frequently enough, like crocuses in March.
Olive journeys through her trials, her marriage, her relationship with her son, potential marital digressions. She seems clueless as to her affect on others, and can be glaringly harsh, while also displaying a capacity for kindness and understanding.
The writing is brilliant, taut, dense, a torte, and thus, a joy to be savored. A short-story writer’s talent for telling large amounts in small spaces, repeated a very lucky thirteen times.
I felt the tales had maybe a bit too much personal resonance. I recognized emotions, if not always specific situations, (and yes, some specific situations too) that I have experienced, and saw, through the eyes of this third-party, experiences that were likely to have been a part of the history of people in my life. Is it a good thing that a writer can make you squirm through such recognition?
Olive grows as a character, gaining some self-awareness, softening some hard edges, finding some light in a dark place, as others succeed or fail around her. This novel, though, is a full-fledged beacon. Wear shades, and enjoy.