Big Woman, Small Town: <i>Olive Kitteridge</i> by Elizabeth Strout

In her inability to feel content with her life, with the "blackness" that accompanies her through her household tasks and is often expressed through anger and even cruelty, Olive seems, in a way, to be too big for the town that has always been her home.
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Olive Kitteridge is a big woman: she is described thus many times throughout the short story collection/novel hybrid that is Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Olive lives in the tiny waterfront town of Crosby, Maine, with a population so small that everyone knows everyone else and their business; where people tend to do what is expected of them -- raise a family, settle down with steady jobs, and limit their aspirations to the boundaries of the town.

In her inability to feel content with her life, with the "blackness" that accompanies her through her household tasks and is often expressed through anger and even cruelty, Olive seems, in a way, to be too big for the town that has always been her home. It seems clear that her marriage, like most of the marriages in Crosby, was determined by the limited number of choices available in the town, when she was too young to understand the consequences. Yet such is the narrowness of her experience that Olive seems utterly unaware of her own rage -- or at least of its source -- and it is this tension between the character and her surroundings, as well as within herself, that is at least a part of what makes Olive Kitteridge so compelling -- nearly impossible to put down. Yet I did succeed in putting the book down, on many occasions, because I wanted it to last.

Each of the short stories that comprise Olive Kitteridge offer an intimate insight into a character, whether it is a local of Crosby or Olive herself. Crafted with care, each story possesses a balance of acute sensual detail, psychological complexity and a sense of infinite forgiveness for the flaws in people -- who are, after all, so often in a state of pain, sadness and fear. There is also a great deal of humor, mostly because even in her dark moods -- or perhaps especially then -- Olive is very funny. As the book progresses, the focus on Olive and her inner life sharpens, as the established rhythms of her life threaten to fall -- quietly, irrevocably -- to pieces.

But often Olive is a guest star, or a grace note, in a story that focuses on a different character entirely. Elizabeth Strout is skillful in maintaining an intriguing paradox: that even in all their interconnectedness and familiarity to one another, each person in Crosby is an independent world, inherently a mystery.

In "The Piano Player," we meet Angela O'Meara, who plays piano four nights a week in a widely frequented bar and restaurant in town. For decades this has been Angela's occupation, and even her choice of clothing remains the same, year after year; yet behind the "face of an angel" that Angela shows the world, there is an anguished turmoil of half-formed realizations and regrets, of difficult secrets. She is a fixture of Crosby, an accepted eccentric who provides the locals with entertainment; yet she remains unknown to all of them, even to the man who claims to love her.

Perhaps the most complex and masterfully crafted of the stories is the first, "Pharmacy." Told from the point of view of Olive's kind, loving husband Henry, "Pharmacy" is broader in scope than many of the other stories, and serves a multiplicity of purposes: it introduces readers to Crosby and to the cast of characters, while drawing a multilayered portrait of a man who, on the surface, seems remarkably simple. This story entrusts the reader with a secret that even Olive will never know: that Henry's apparent simplicity is at least in part a form of defense; that throughout his life he will grapple with longings and secrets of his own, and understand more about his wife than she realizes.

It is in fact a yearning for simplicity, rather than its reality, which animates Henry's actions. He longs for exactly the kind of life that the town idealizes, with a stable marriage, loving home, and churchgoing respectability. But he has married a discontented woman who frequently infects him and their son with her depression and rage, whom he nonetheless loves. His fear that she will someday abandon him is an outgrowth of the rejection she unwittingly expresses through her cruelty to him. The only solution, then, is to purposefully seek the good in the world, and refuse to see the bad -- at least for as long as such a refusal is possible.

Joining the stories together is Crosby itself, which is evoked in such tangible and delicious detail as to become unmistakable, a place to sink into. It is at once deeply familiar and its own universe. In choosing to explore the layers of one small American town, Strout continues a longstanding tradition of American literature while bringing to it an added layer of contemporary resonance. As in most stories of this type, there are hints that the town is on the verge of transformation, or death, occasioned by the relentless changes of the times: Henry is forced into retirement when his small, friendly pharmacy is replaced with a soulless Walgreens-type mammoth, and the younger generation is trickling away to the big cities. Yet if even a century after Sherwood Anderson's chronicles of Winesburg, Ohio, the quintessential small American town is still offering such gifts to the reader as Olive Kitteridge, perhaps the impending demise of such a place -- and such literature -- has been greatly exaggerated.

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