Might and Maine
‘Oh insane, ludicrous, unknowable world! Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.’
The writer Paul Theroux, himself a resident of Maine, wrote of its people that they have “deep roots and old loyalties, sceptical of authority, they are proud and inflexibly territorial.” The same might well be said of the characters that people Elizabeth Strout’s prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge and none more so than the title character, Olive, herself.
Olive Kitteridge is, in fact, not precisely a novel but an interwoven collection of short-stories set over a lifetime in a small coastal town in Maine. Several generations and a cast of characters come and go, marry, grow old and die all under the watchful scrutiny of retired schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge. Irascible, unpredictable, by degrees kind, cruel, judgemental and erratically loving, Olive is a strange kind of every(wo)man, a touchstone at the heart of a community, the conduit for an everyday, ordinary kind of wonder.
Communal life in New England is a topic familiar to Strout, herself a lifetime resident of various small towns in Maine and New Hampshire. Although her first short story appeared in print when she was 26, it wasn’t until 1998, when she was 42, that her first novel, Amy and Isabelle was published. It was her third novel, Olive Kitteridge, however, which brought Strout to worldwide attention with the novel winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. The novel received universal acclaim with The New York Times praising the authenticity of the character of Olive saying: ‘She understands that life is lonely and unfair, that only the greatest luck will bring blessings like a long marriage and a quick death. She knows she’s been rotten; she has regrets. She understands people’s failings — and, ultimately, their frail hopes (New York Times, 2008). Strout has gone on to write a further three novels, the latest, My Name is Lucy Barton, picking up on many of the recurring themes of family, identity and community life explored throughout all of her novels but most acutely in Olive Kitteridge.
When I think of novels that capture something of that impossible ideal of US Fiction, the Great American Novel, then I am drawn to those that seamlessly blend the epic with the everyday. From To Kill a Mockingbird and John Irving’s The Cider House Rules to the novels of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson, ordinary lives in ordinary places take on universal significance. It is this sense of being rooted in a place, in the lives of real people, which makes Olive Kitteridge stand out so emphatically. Strout herself said in a recent interview that she has little interest in grand posturing: “I don’t want to write melodrama; I’m not interested in good and bad, I’m interested in all those little ripples that we all live with. And I think that if one gets a truthful emotion down, or a truthful something down, it is timeless.” (Guardian 2016)
Strout is at her most convincing when she creates characters who are both unlikeable and yet utterly believable. Her people are not simply nice people but they are authentic and whilst readers won’t always like them, they are able to empathise with and understand them.
By the end of Olive Kitteridge the reader feels as though they have entered her world, lived a whole life through her eyes. As fellow author Ann Patchett says ‘I felt like I was being pulled aside by a friend who was saying, “Look, there’s something I have to tell you.”’ It is a story worth lingering to hear.
Image: Portland head lighthouse on the coast of Maine (c) Collins93