I like the way Elizabeth Strout's prose locomotes. It doesn't race, like Victor Hugo's breathless 19th-century effusions. It doesn't strut, like David Foster Wallace's chest-thumping, maximalist outpourings. Nor is it hobbled by the crippling self-consciousness that seems to plague the recipients of the modern MFA, as if the degree were a bullet to the leg and everything the author did thereafter bore its gimpy stamp.
No, the writing in Olive Kitteridge, the third offering from former law student Elizabeth Strout and my fourth selection for my year of reading dangerously, is like a good walk. It's purposeful, natural, engaging, and functional; it gets you where you need to go. It is seldom showy but often lovely -and it's a loveliness that unfolds subtly, with the steady tempo of a stroll.
Here's the book's opening paragraph:
"For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold."
By the end of this paragraph, I was hooked -but gently, so that it took me several more weeks and many more paragraphs to work out how the story was lodged, the ways in which it pierced me. Olive Kitteridge takes the form of a series of interlinked short stories, each viable on its own but echoing in the next, so that the various resonances and cross-currents build into something loud.
That something is Olive, a big, capable, angry woman living an ordinary life in coastal Maine. Olive is at the heart of some stories and at the margin of others; in a few, she barely registers. It's a fractal portrait, a juddering biography, and it is enormously compelling. I was afraid of this book because I'm not especially partial to short stories: I find them too self-conscious, too neat; they try too hard. In a good novel you can feel the characters stretch and breathe; in a good short story, the breath and the reach are almost without fail the author's.
Yet, somehow, Olive Kitteridge splutters to life. There are a few misteps, a few stories in which Ms. Strout's hand shoves you a degree too hard and you feel, for an instant, as if you might fall, but for the most part, you walk. A long way, and sometimes over rough ground, but you end up in the right place.