Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

The Good:

Truly, this is a wonderful writer whose other books I will seek out. I have read several criticisms of the organization and flow of this book, which presents a series of vignettes featuring a small town in Maine. There are several leaps in time and many points-of-view, some which return again and again (as in the case of the main protagonist, Olive Kitteridge), and some whom we hear from only once. This style of narrative elicits criticism from several readers: the book “jumps around,” the narrative is “too confusing,” and the story is “all jumbled.” There is nothing more infuriating, in my opinion, than a writer who dumbs down a narrative. In short, appreciate an excellent writer who isn’t spoon-feeding you a story. Ms. Strout is an intelligent author, and I don’t think it unreasonable that she asks you to be an intelligent reader.
I think if you were an alien from another planet and you were trying to understand American culture, I would suggest this book. It's such a wonderful snapshot of an America that is erased in such a short amount of time. Nowhere is safe from the march of the corporation, not even small-town Maine. That's not the main theme of this novel, but it's an interesting sideline. The novel is primarily about love and anger, American-style, and growing old in a marriage. And I really can't think of another novelist that I think captures so well the emotional hills and valleys that characterize most marriages (with the exception of Anne Tyler). I very much appreciated the span of time, which some readers resented, because you can't capture that resignation and hope that threatens and saves most marriages unless you look at the long haul.


The Bad:

I can’t help but writer spoiler-ish reviews. I don’t do the abstract very well. There are reasons why some books work and some books don’t, and usually those issues are concrete. So you are warned.

As much as I admire this book, I have a problem with it, and it’s not a small problem. In fact, it jeopardizes much of the admiration that I have for this work. I really did love the majority of it. In fact, the whole book worked for me until the last six pages. Because in the last six pages the author undermines, literally pulls the rug out from under the reader, by casually mentioning that Olive, who we have come to understand is a difficult woman (at best), but someone who might (and I qualify that) be a woman who deserves our sympathy—our allegiance even—is a woman who is guilty of child abuse. Now, I might be totally off base and this issue was reared on page 40, and if that’s the case and I missed it, then this review is pointless. However, if not…

There is another woman in this book who is guilty of child abuse, and she’s written as basically evil and crazy. Her abuse is front and center and we hate her. Also, as a reader we are supposed to confront this issue while all the time knowing that Olive was a teacher. Now, her teaching is really only a shadow in the story, and I’m sure a lot of teachers abuse their own children, but it’s an issue that should be dealt with. The teacher who is really unfit to teach might have been a good parallel story with the mother who is unfit to mother. I think this should have been explored, but then how can it be when this abuse is hidden from the reader until the very end of the book?

With the knowledge of her abuse kept firmly from the reader, we are willing to cut Olive some slack despite her truly flinty and uncompromising approach to nearly everyone. In this case, however, it doesn’t just undermine our relationship with her. And yes, I use that term relationship because that is what readers have with characters: a relationship. Some shades in a character are forgivable, some are not. Beating a child is not. Or at least you can’t throw that in like it’s just something that happens. On occasion. On a Tuesday, for instance. Or maybe the odd Wednesday.

Yes, there is a hint of her abuse when her son marries a totally inappropriate woman, and Olive overhears conversations she isn’t supposed to hear (and this was one instance where I thought, oh, Ms. Strout, you are so much better than to use the “eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves” trope). Except that this woman is written as an interloper, a suspect character, not someone we want to believe. At this point we are more or less on Team Olive, if reluctantly. But when Olive admits that she beat her son (six pages from the end of the novel), then it’s a total slap in the face. It’s like the author has built up all of our sympathies for this woman up to a point, and then we are supposed to forgive her. Bullshit. I don’t forgive Olive and I don’t forgive the author. This is unfair. This calls into question the characterization of, at a minimum, the son and Henry, Olive’s husband. He stood around, benign, loving Henry, and let his wife beat the shit out of their son? We are supposed to believe this? There is nothing in his brief narratives that even hints at this rather great moral failing. That he feels guilt. That he can’t protect his son and that he hates himself because of it. Henry’s entire character is called into question. And her son never calls his mother on her awful behavior, but sends her off with a sort of Zen-like benediction, oh well, if that’s what you want, go. I’m free of you. Free of what? Well, we discover what.

No. I’m sorry. You want to write a book about a flinty, uncompromising woman who scorns nearly everyone who comes within her reach because her lover rejected her love by running into a tree, then you admit that she beat her son. You want to create sympathy for Olive weeping over an anorexic waif, a stranger, because she’s looking for love, and yet has no compunction about smacking her child, then you lay it out there, and you write that book so that we DO sympathize with this woman. You don’t throw this at the reader six pages before the end of a novel.

In my opinion, it’s a repudiation of the really lovely writing that precedes the previous 267 pages. I think that Ms. Strout is such a wonderful writer that she could have written a book with such conflicting loyalties and still earn our admiration, but she didn’t. She kept this secret pretty close to the vest and then clubbed us over the metaphorical head with it right at the end of the book.

Not. Fair.

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