Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Strout’

‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout – She’s Back

 

‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout (2019) – 289 pages

Olive Kitteridge of the small town of Crosby, Maine is getting old, but she still is a lively strong character who gets around the streets of the town.

In one story the husband of younger housewife Candy calls Olive Kitteridge an “old bag”. However Olive is one of only two people in town who will still stop by to visit with Candy. Candy’s other old friends are too scared. Candy is receiving radiation treatments for cancer, has lost all her hair, and is unsure if the current treatments will be successful.

Olive, you’re the kind of person people want to talk to.”

I don’t know about that,” Olive said.

Several shocking surprising goings on play against readers’ expectations of what goes on in a small town. Murder, arrests, several would-be suicides, family sexual abuse. These things do happen in small towns, but they get swept under the living room carpet. In the fictional works of Strout, the terrible events in the small town of Crosby, Maine, are brought out in the open. I would call her attitude small-town fatalism.

Elizabeth Strout gets to the crux of things, of life and death, which gives these linked stories more depth than you would expect. The stories are about the events, both good and bad, that make up each person’s life. The reader identifies with these not always admirable characters. Along the way, Strout achieves these moments of real near-wordless profundity.

These were openings into the darkness of a relationship one saw by mistake, as if inside a dark barn, the door had momentarily been blown off and one saw things not meant to be seen.”

Also we get glimpses of Olive’s own family life. At the beginning of ‘Olive, Again’, Olive remarries at age 70. Olive is not close to her own only son and his family who live in New York, but finally they come to visit her.

So there was this: Her son had married his mother, as all men – in some form or other – eventually do.”

Having an old person, Olive Kitteridge, near the center of your stories means you can deal with both life and death in them. Elizabeth Strout takes full advantage of this.

She was going to die. It seemed extraordinary to her, amazing. She had never really believed it before.”

The last two stories are about the hard truths we all must eventually contend with. Actually all the stories deal with hard truths of one sort or another. Elizabeth Strout’s fiction is the opposite of escapism.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout – “But this was life! And it was messy!”

 

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout   (2017)  –   254 pages

‘Anything is Possible’ is a collection of linked stories about some of the people who live in a small town in Illinois and its surrounding rural area.  The structure is similar to Strout’s previous work ‘Olive Kitteridge’, although that work took place in New England.

By now Elizabeth Strout may be considered a master of the linked story structure. In each story we hear about incidental characters through the gossip and hearsay that is going around town.  Some of these side persons that are talked about get their own story later on.

The behavior of some of the well-to-do people as well as that of some of the dirt-poor people in this town is despicable.  A man sets his neighbor’s barn on fire because the neighbor had caught him masturbating outside.  A male patron of the arts secretly films, assaults, and nearly rapes a female artist houseguest.  Strout doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that neighbors are doing under the seemingly tranquil surface of the town.  This makes for some offbeat interactions as nearly everyone here has at least a fleeting acquaintance with their neighbors’ life stories.  And in a small town, a person’s life story lives on forever, even after death.

I suppose that is why many people including perhaps myself consider life in a small town awfully stifling.  Everyone knows and judges everyone else, and the gossip flies around.  It is difficult to break free of your family’s past, your own past, without leaving.  In ‘Everything is Possible’, Lucy Barton comes from the weirdest poorest family in town, and in Elizabeth Strout’s stories that means awfully bizarre.  However somehow she has managed to escape, lives in New York, and has now improbably become a best-selling author.  One of the stories depicts her return to town to visit her brother and sister who are still stuck in the town.  Of course the anonymity of a big city neighborhood can also have its disadvantages.  I suspect that even small towns aren’t as tightly-knit as they used to be or as they are made out to be in these stories.

Strout starts each story without any preliminary introduction or explanation.  We usually are thrown right in the middle of a conversation.  Part of the pleasure of each story for the reader is figuring out what the exact details of the situation are.  Usually the circumstances in the stories wind up being strange and messy, but that is the way life is.

 

Grade:   A- 

 

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