Tag Archives: Maine

Olive, Again: Elizabeth Strout

“God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.”

I was sorry to see the last of Olive when I closed the final page of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge. For those who have yet to meet Olive (in either the book or the TV series version) Olive Kitteridge is a retired Math teacher who lives in Crosby Maine with her husband, pharmacist Henry. In many ways they are a mismatched couple (she’s domineering and abrasive and Henry is tender and kind) but in other ways Henry and Olive supplement one another.  In Olive Kitteridge, which isn’t as much a novel as much as interconnected stories, we meet not just Olive, Henry and their son Christopher, but also a range of characters who live in Crosby, and these characters form a rich tapestry of small town life. Some people really like Olive for her quirky outspokenness ; others find her abrasive and dislike her.

It doesn’t take too many pages before you realise that Olive is a formidable character. She can at times have incredible insight and empathy towards people but she is a tyrant at home. Both gentle Henry and unhappy Christopher are overshadowed and dominated by Olive, and in Olive Kitteridge, Christopher breaks with his mother and Henry suffers from illness which takes Olive by surprise.

Olive again

Now we’re back again: life has moved on for Olive. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, Olive meets Jack Kennison a retired widower, a Harvard professor who’s been eased out of his position by sexual harassment charges. Olive, Again picks up this story thread with 74-year-old Jack and Olive connecting after acknowledging old age and loneliness. Both Jack and Olive are estranged from their children, and Jack, a much more confident and self-assured man than Henry, manages to roll with Olive’s sharp temper and lashing tongue.

The stories bring a host of characters into play: people who drift in and out of Olive’s life and sometimes we see Olive pass by the lives of other characters who are central to a specific story. Over time, Olive finds that Henry recedes into the background and she goes through various conclusions about her marriage and Henry (some of which are reassessed again before the book concludes.)

The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage–a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding–had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable. 

I’m not going to talk about all the stories: just the ones that stick in my mind. One of my favourite, yet disturbing stories in the collection, Cleaning, features Kaley, a young girl who cleans houses. She cleans the home of a strange couple, a teacher and her husband who, according to Olive is “going dopey-dope.” Kaley finds that she cannot talk to anyone about what is happening at the house–it’s a situation that creeps up on her, and while the subject doesn’t come up with Olive, somehow Olive’s frank take on the couple clears the air.

There’s also another brilliant story, Labor about a tedious baby shower. which illustrates how Olive doesn’t fit in. Olive sits there with the other women aware of how she’s supposed to act: she’s bored and impatient; she knows she’s supposed to ohhh and ahhh over the gifts with all the other women, and she tries to put on a good show of interest and attention but it’s really more than she can bear.

A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait–wait-while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life. 

In Light Olive visits a former student, Cindy, who has cancer. Most of Cindy’s friends avoid visiting or if they visit, the C word isn’t mentioned. But no subject is taboo to Olive; she doesn’t recognize boundaries. Olive’s graceless blunt manner is just what this woman needs and for once Olive’s matter of fact approach is welcomed.

In The End of the Civil War Days, Olive plays a tiny role while the main focus is a married couple who separate their living areas with yellow duct tape, so that they each have half of the dining room, the living room etc. and necessary communicate exists through addressing the dog “The main issue, naturally, is the television,” as with two televisions husband and wife compete with sound until the husband gets earphones. The way some people live for so long that it becomes normal. …. The irony to this story is that a state of civil war reigns at home and the husband is a member of a civil war reenactment group.

(And just as a point, I know a couple who live like this; the husband sleeps outside.)

Somehow these stories sum up a lot about Olive: she’s complicated; she’s impatient and doesn’t fit the roles she finds herself shoved into. She has a difficult time with social relationships and perhaps that’s why outsiders, people on the fringes like her so much. Jack emerges as a main character here. At one point, he reassesses his relationship with his dead wife with the “horrifying rush” that while he loved her, they’d “still squandered what they’d had.” Whereas Henry was dominated and overshadowed by Olive, Jack, who’s well aware that they must enjoy the short time left, simply laughs at Olive’s grumpiness and barbs.

Mental illness is one of the themes of Olive Kitteridge, and while it’s also in Olive, Again other themes are the deep scars left in marriage by infidelities, the rising tide of regret, and aging which of course goes hand in hand with dying. Characters drop off left right and center, and Olive herself become an old lady. Her world shrinks in this book, and while it’s sad, Olive comes to a few revelations about her life and her son Christopher.  At times she struggles to understand how things happened, but she also has some remarkable revelations– as does Jack, who also lives with many regrets and has an unfortunate face-to-face with his Waterloo in Pedicure.

Review copy.

 

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Olive Kitteridge: Elizabeth Strout

“Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.”

I saw the miniseries version of Olive Kitteridge, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout, and this is one of the rare instances that I’m glad I saw the screen version first. The wonderful actress Frances Mcdormand (always entertaining to watch) gave an incredible performance as Olive. A great many adjectives come to mind when I think about Olive. She’s caustic, domineering, and outspoken. Definitely eccentric, she’s the sort of person who provokes a strong reaction. The novel is a series of interconnecting stories; sometimes Olive’s a main character, and other times she’s in the background barely mentioned. Some of the stories are told from Olive’s perspective while others feature the lives of other residents in the town of Crosby, Maine. One of book’s underlying themes is mental illness; there are several characters in the book who show various signs of mental illness, and then there’s Olive. Is the jury out on the mental state of this main character?

Olive kitteridge

So who is Olive Kitteridge? In Elizabeth Strout’s novel, we see Olive, a retired math teacher, who lives in the town of Crosby, Maine where everyone seems to know everyone else.  Olive is a difficult woman. Respected by some, she intimidates others. She has many admirable qualities: she’s intelligent, capable, and confident, but to her family, she’s frequently monstrous because she’s so formidable and domineering. Yet at the same time, she’s capable of incredible sensitivity, but it seems easier for Olive to show kindness and compassion to strangers than to her husband and only child, Christopher.

The novel opens with Pharmacy which is an introduction to Olive’s sweet husband, Henry who works in a pharmacy in the next town. Henry is a steady, kind, considerate gentle man, and we get a view of Henry and his life with Olive when his long-term employee dies and he employs a very naive young newlywed, Denise. Denise is sweet and rather helpless, and at one point, when tragedy strikes, Henry steps into Denise’s life to help her. Olive warns him that “People are never as helpless as you think they are.” 

Pharmacy shows the Kitteridges’ married life with Henry often hesitant to show affection to his prickly wife due to “a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” Olive isn’t easy to live with and her outbursts are unpredictable. One day, for example, Henry rather “uncharacteristically” complains when Olive refuses to accompany her husband to church:

“Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!” Olive had almost spit her fury’s door flung open, “You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher’s homework with him! and you—.” She grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night’s disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. “You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!” Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. “Well, I’m sick and tired of it,” she said calmly. “Sick to death.”

In A Little Burst, Christopher finally marries (he’s 38 years-old) and Olive tries to accept  his bossy wife, Suzanne. By the end of the wedding day, Olive loathes her new daughter-in-law. The marriage takes place in Maine, and it’s a humiliating experience for Olive who can’t understand why on earth her son is marrying this woman–but it’s quite obvious that Suzanne is another version of Olive: so Christopher, in essence is marrying his mother. In later chapters, we track Christopher’s marriage and relationships.

In Tulips, Olive makes the mistake of visiting Louise Larkin, a woman Olive used to work with. It’s a strange meeting, and a rare occasion when Olive finds herself outplayed.

Olive is at her best with people outside of any intimate relationships. Living damages and bruises, so we see various characters who ‘cope’ (or not) with an array of tragedies and disasters. Olive’s past led to a wall–a wall of toughness which will not allow tenderness or a moment of weakness. It’s easy to see why she married Henry even though she thinks he’s “irritating” and has a “steadfast way of remaining naive, as though life were just what a Sears catalogue told you it was: everyone standing around smiling.” 

The book is full of memorable characters, but, of course, the ‘star’ here is Olive. Would we want to know Olive? Would we want to be related to Olive? In creating of Olive, author Elizabeth Strout, with compassion and sensitivity, shows the many facets of one very complicated personality.

Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and ” little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well, a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really. 

 

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Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

“But the truth is, no matter how successful or happy you may consider yourself to be there is always a part of your life that is problematic, or deficient, or a letdown in some way.”

The blurb on the back cover of Five Days includes this:

Douglas Kennedy’s powerful new novel poignantly examines the death of hope, the limitless possibilities of love, and how the entire trajectory of a life can change through one brief encounter.

It’s interesting that the words ‘brief encounter’ appear as this is the film I thought of when I read Douglas Kennedy’s latest book, but while I’d class the 1945 film Brief Encounter as a romance, Five Days isn’t so easily pegged. Yes, there is romance in these pages, but primarily this is a story of how one very unhappy 41-year-old woman faces her unhappiness and decides to do something to change her life. five daysLaura is a married Radiology Technician who works at a hospital in Damariscotta, Maine, and here between the hours of 9-5, she performs scans on patients sent to her as part of the diagnostic  sequence. It’s my personal belief that you can’t work in this sort of job without it impacting your thoughts about life & death, and this is certainly true of Laura who sees people who are dying of cancer on a daily basis. Not that Laura is the one that breaks the news, of course, but she is, nonetheless part of the sequence of events. She’s always been able to handle her job, but lately the job has been getting to her, and she’s internalizing the results: euphoric when nothing is found, and tearful when the scans yield positive results. Peel back a few layers of Laura’s life, and it’s easy to see that her marriage is unhappy and unsatisfying. Add two troubled teenagers to the mix. Trouble then is on the horizon when Laura heads off solo to a conference in Boston where she meets Richard Copeland, a 50-something insurance salesman who is just as unhappy as she is…..

Five Days illustrates perfectly that affairs do not occur in the real world. They exist in a bubble–a very special, fabricated place that is not hampered by everyday concerns, and the novel does an excellent job of showing how very much easier it is for Laura to communicate with a brand-new person who shares a great deal of her interests instead of trying to discuss anything with Dan, her long-term unemployed, depressed husband of over 23 years.

So far so good.

As a protagonist, Laura is an irritating, insufferable human being–nothing wrong with reading about insufferable people, of course, as they can be a lot of fun (thinking Kingsley Amis here), but when they’re supposed to garner our sympathy and our subsequent interest in the character’s journey of self-discovery, it helps if that character is sympathetic, and if this transaction doesn’t occur, then something different happens.  The alarm bells initially went off for me with Laura’s character early in the novel when she described her competency at diagnosing cancers, and the alarms were loud and clear when she reveals the “shock” and “hurt” she feels after discovering that her now-deceased mother had an ectopic pregnancy years earlier. And this sums up in a nutshell Laura’s central issue as a character for this reader.; other people’s death sentences are her tragedy; her mother’s inability to have more children is somehow a personal betrayal. Laura is self-focused and egotistical even while she’s presented as suffering from a general lack of affection from an obtuse, depressive, dull and uninspiring spouse. Listening to Laura became a bit like listening to a work acquaintance complaining about her home life even as you, the audience, silently feel a bit sorry for the poor sod at home.

Laura is a RT but has long-buried dreams of being a doctor with long slow hints of why that didn’t happen. The first person narrative goes back and forth in time, and Laura’s story of just what went wrong with those dreams is gradually revealed. She ‘settled’ for Dan, and it seems that there’s no intellectual spark between them. No matter. When she meets Richard, the sparks fly in an egoistical word-play exchange. I’m not sure that people really talk like this, and if I’m wrong and then they do, they are obnoxious. Here’s Laura and Richard discovering their mutual love of synonyms

“He initially had a business partner–Jack Jones. A fellow Marine. Unlike my father, Jack actually liked people. Don’t know what he was doing in business with my father, as Jack was a genuinely happy-go-lucky guy and Dad was kind of dyspeptic about life.”

“I like that word: dyspeptic.”

” ‘Bilious’ would also be a good descriptive word as well. ‘Liverish’ might also fit the bill.”

“How about ‘disputative’?”

“A little too legal, I think. Dad was a misanthrope, but never litigious.”

I looked at him with a new interest. “You like words,” I said.

“You’re looking at the Kennebac County Spelling Bee champion of 1974, which is kind of Middle Ages now, right? But once you get hooked on words you don’t really ever lose the habit.”

This sort of thing goes on for a while–a sort of word-one-upmanship, and the mental/sexual sparks flying through the air which each new posturing.

“Okay, I give you that. How about ‘abrogatory’?”

“Now you’re getting too fancy. ‘Approbative.’ “

“That’s not fancy? Sounds downright florid to me.”

“Florid isn’t ‘aureate.’  “

“Or ‘Churrigueresque’? he asked.

Five Days certainly has its merits; it is a page turner and at its best when conveying the unreality of an affair when compared to the ever-present tensions of home and responsibility. Life can throw a lot of unexpected disasters at anyone, but two middle-aged people discussing their disappointments, loneliness, unfulfilled dreams of literary fame, and past glory of long-gone college days has never been exactly an up experience. Here it’s an angst-filled odyssey into some depressing territory. I’ve been meaning to read a Douglas Kennedy novel for some time as I have seen a few films based on his books: The Woman on the Fifth (disliked it), Welcome to Woop Woop (one of my favourite cult films), The Big Picture (excellent). Perhaps Five Days was the wrong place to start, and I may very well be the wrong reader for the book as my sob-o-meter isn’t exactly a sensitive instrument. So, if any Kennedy readers out there would like to recommend one of his titles, I’ll give it a go.

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Reunion at Red Paint By by George Harrar

“You don’t erase yourself at every stage of life. Human personalities develop in layers, one on top of the other. Scratch one layer, you can see what’s below.”

In George Harrar’s novel, Reunion at Red Paint Bay, when Simon Howe, owner and editor  of the only newspaper in the small town of Red Paint, Maine begins receiving anonymous postcards that bear cryptic messages, he doesn’t take it too seriously. At first he thinks the postcards might be a mistake, but then as the cards continue to arrive, Simon’s therapist wife, Amy senses danger while Simon is merely amused.  He can’t imagine that he’s “somehow fallen into a cliché mystery novel.” After all nothing ever happens in Red Paint, a small picturesque town, 4 miles by 3 miles with a population at just over 7,000 people–a place that calls itself “the friendliest town in Maine.” Everyone seems to know one another, and this is the sort of town where people don’t worry about locking their front doors. The last murder took place twenty years before, and there are times when Simon finds it difficult to drum up enough newsworthy stories to fill the paper. This is a town where stories about someone losing a toe and a sighting of the Virgin Mary in a pile of sand make the front page.

Reunion at red paint bayAs the cards continue to arrive, it becomes increasingly obvious that the sender has an agenda which involves Simon. Amy, who works with the female survivors of rape, theorizes that whoever is sending the cards is out for revenge. The repetitive nature of the cards appears to have a payoff for the sender:

Revenge is often elaborate. That’s part of its appeal. You get to enjoy it over and over again as you plan it.

At first Simon can’t imagine himself as the object of revenge, but over time, he mentally lists all those who he may have offended over the years, and to his surprise, they are quite a few candidates who might wish him harm. As Simon and Amy feel a growing threat, we see fragmented glimpses of the man who has sent the postcards. He becomes bolder and bolder as he circles Simon, awaiting the perfect moment. Meanwhile as all of this goes on, the town readies itself for a 25 year high school reunion….

Reunion at Red Paint places us immediately in the lives of Simon and Amy Howe. These are people who’ve chosen small town life for a reason, and Red Paint is Simon’s hometown, a place he’s returned to even though he may have given up the chances of a better career. Simon is a wonderful husband and father, but is he all that he seems to be? Shortly after the novel opens, there’s a marvellous scene as husband and wife order a meal for their son at the drive-in window at Burger World. This seemingly simple scene sets the stage to show a division–a divide of communication and true thought processes, for while Amy chides her husband for not being friendly enough with the waitress, Simon has a sneaking desire to go check out the face and the body behind the attractive voice. This scene sets up the novel’s underlying theme: how well do we really know anyone?

Although the novel may appear to be a stalker thriller, and it certainly starts as that, this is not an adequate description. Yes, there are moments of gripping intensity, but in the final analysis, the novel turns in a much more thoughtful, psychological direction and morphs into something unexpected and even creepier as we are faced with some big questions about guilt, remorse and atonement. While the meshing of these two elements: thriller and drama are not always successful, nonetheless, the story generates a lot of issues for discussion regarding the chilling ability to create stories and versions of our lives that in the telling become more acceptable and fit the version of the person we’d like to be. I’d recommend this novel to people who enjoy the novels of Ruth Rendell.

Review copy.

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