Writing fiction is my passion. While raising my children, I wrote short stories, finding strength in my work when I rooted it in the emotions and conflicts of my own life. This makes me agree with Michael Zapata, author of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, when he comments on what fiction writers are putting on the page: Every telling of an event is a portrait of the teller, not the event itself.
My interpretation of that statement: The author’s ideas, feelings, beliefs–all reside somewhere in the pages she writes. And going deeper, the actions and statements of a character reveal or mask what and who that character truly is. That’s why we love different authors during different periods of our lives. We change and find those who speak to us. Right this moment, Elizabeth Strout is my favorite.
Strout writes novels, yes, and I’ve read every one. But I also love the satisfying experience of reading an entire story in a brief period of time. Our life styles can demand it, short stories fulfill it, the writer focussing on one character’s experience, inner thoughts and much more. And as you will see, WE GET OLIVE.
MEET OLIVE KITTERIDGE .
“Mousey. Looks just like a mouse.” These are the first words of the irascible and yet in many ways lovable Olive when we first meet her–she providing her opinion of the assistant her pharmacist husband, Henry, has just hired. When Henry replies: “But a nice mouse. A cute one,” of course Olive has more to say.
“No one’s cute who can’t stand up straight.” And you’re reading and straightening up in the chair where you are sitting and thinking, damn, she’s right. And that’s only the beginning, for Olive lives fully in the pages of OLIVE KITTERIDGE and now in OLIVE AGAIN.
ME AND STROUT
I read her first book, AMY AND ISABLE and loved it. A year later, I signed up for a weekend class with Strout at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. She shared her writing process, which is long, with many versions and iterations that she keeps in boxes in her home. She laughed, saying that her in-laws didn’t seem to approve. Well they must now–Strout being a Pulitzer Prize winner for, of course, OLIVE KITTERIDGE.
A former high school teacher, Olive is married to a pharmacist. They have one son, Christopher, and Olive always has problems with the choices he makes. They live in Crosby, Maine and Strout often writes about other married couples in that town. She states: Do I enjoy telling the secrets of old married couples? I adore telling the secrets of old marriage couples. A marriage is always a source of great drama for a fiction writer. It is in our most intimate relationships that we are truly revealed.
In the second book, Olive has aged, her pharmacist husband is dead and Olive remarries. But as the book progresses, we truly see the hardening of decision making that does or will affect all of us as we age. We see Olive struggle with wanting to stay independent. We ache when she has to acknowledge she is not as healthy as she once was, all the while being unable to control her sharp tongue. She is now an indomitable character on a precipice: will she reach out and help others or maintain a steely independence that can put her at risk as she ages.
EXCERPT: …Betty showed up–the first home healthcare aid–and she was a big person. Not fat, just big. Her maroon cotton pants were tight on her, her shirt barely closed; she was probably fifty years old. She sat down immediately in a chair. “What’s up?” she asked Olive, and Olive didn’t care to hear that.
“I’ve had a heart attack and apparently you’re supposed to babysit me.”
“Don’t know that I’d call it that,” Betty said. “I’m a nurse’s aide.”
“Fine,” said Olive. “Call yourself whatever you want. You’re still here to babysit me.”
And then, at the very end of this wonderful book:
Finally Olive stood up slowly, leaning on her cane, and moved to her table. She sat down in her chair, put her glasses on, and put a new sheet of paper into the typewriter. Leaning forward, poking at the keys, she typed one sentence. Then she typed some more. She pulled the sheet of paper out and placed it carefully on top of her pile of memories; the words she had just written reverberated in her head.
I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.
If you do decide to join other Olive lovers and read these books or have read them, let me know. And thanks for reading.
P.S. ATTENTION ALL ELIZABETH STROUT READERS: Because OLIVE AGAIN is a book of short stories, Strout does an awesome thing. Every character she has created in her other books, continue to live in her imagination. Thus we again meet Isabelle from AMY & ISABELLE and characters from the BURGESS BOYS. It’s a wonderful reunion to again be with these people and discover how their lives are progressing–or not doing so well. As each story unfolds, the world of the character is revealed in Strout’s tight prose that is truly genius. And as for Olive, she is the most honest, aging woman you will ever meet.