Thursday, December 29

Considering Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge"

The final lines of the final story of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge suggest that the work is about love. Remembering the stories of husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, mistresses and men, it does not seem inappropriate as the central theme, but it came as a surprise to me. I had thought Olive Kitteridge was about misery. A young widow learns of her husband's infidelity the day he is buried. An old lover returns to a woman only to tell her that he slept with her mother. A daughter runs away from home to be with a man who only told her he preferred that they live together but not as a married couple on their wedding day. The titular character, who appears in all the stories if only as a cameo, is dismissive of her meek husband and is told by her son that she ruined his young life through her mercurial moods. For something so widely celebrated in contemporary American life, what little love there is in Crosby, Maine, setting of all the stories, brings little happiness to the people. Even when it is found and recognized, as Mrs. Kitteridge seems to do at the very end, almost two years after her husband dies, it is not very appealing. She does not like the man particularly. She merely finds in him someone who has undergone the same pains she has and makes her feel needed and less interested in leaving the world.

It's childish, ironic considering that Olive Kitteridge is retired by the time the stories begin and seventy-two by the time they end. If there were a motto for Olive Kitteridge it would be, "Life is loneliness and pain. Should you be lucky enough to find someone to make it a little more tolerable, you will probably neither recognize nor appreciate them." The only people who could find such a statement profound and true is a snot teenager whose first intimate relationship does not go as planned and who finds their parents fools. There are good things in life. There are things to smile and laugh about and enjoy, but there is no humor to be found in this collection.

No comments: