Olive Kittridge, Elizabeth Strout

Cover illustration for Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge is easily the most depressing book I’ve read in years…maybe ever. This is the kind of book that sucks your soul away. The volume consists of 13 internlinking vignettes about the residents of a small Maine town, with the title character, Olive Kittridge, appearing in each. In some of sections, Olive is the star of her own story, in others she merely wanders, Where’s Waldo like, through the background.

This is no quaint charmer, however. Olive Kittridge is a book about resignation, disappointment, and loss, leavened with the lightest dusting of dark humor. These are stories of violence, illness, and divorce. There are robberies at gun point, near drownings, hunting accidents, strokes. Multiple characters have lost parents to suicide. A young girl starves herself to death, dying of a heart attack, a symptom of her chronic anorexia. The parents of a murderer become recluses, leaving the house only at night for twenty years. A lonely barroom piano player leaves her married lover. A wife discovers her spouse and childhood sweetheart’s infidelity on the day of his funeral.

More than the dark events, however, what makes this work so incredibly difficult is the overwhelming sense of helpless inertia. Strout shows us a sad, quiet town plagued by senseless, insurmountable pain. There’s no adventure here, and little hope. Only a grim decline, prejudice, gossip, resistance to change, inescapable circumstance, everything that’s worst about small town life, condensed into 250 pages.

Olive herself is eminently sympathetic without being exactly likable. A middle school math teacher, smarter than she needs to be, with a caustic edge capable of delivering dry humor or bitter reproof. Enormously judgmental, sporadically capable of profound intuitive empathy, insatiably hungry for a level of meaningful human interaction she can never attain.

All this isn’t to say Olive Kittridge is a bad book, necessarily. Its intelligent and nuanced, with moments of real beauty. It won a Pulitzer for a reason, after all. Its just very difficult. More difficult, for me, than stereotypically difficult novels, like 1984, The Road or the Bell Jar, because of its sickening, solid realism, untempered by the interest inherent in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, authoritarian dystopian government, or elegant madness. These are real people in circumstances not outside the realm of possibility for any of us.