This collection of short stories about the inhabitants of the fictional coastal town of Crosby in Maine remind me of the work of the Canadian novelist Alice Munro, also of “Lake Wobegon Days”. The opening tale, introduces us to Henry Kitteridge, the decent, kindly pharmacist who falls for his tragically widowed young assistant Denise. It is easy to understand why he dreams of leaving his brusque, sharp-tongued wife Olive who “had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away”, so hard to grasp why “to leave Olive was as unthinkable as sawing off a leg”. Olive’s appearances in the stories vary from a brief mention to a pivotal role, to the extent of justifying the use of her name as the overarching title. She embodies three key themes of Elizabeth Strout’s work: ordinary people are flawed and complex; many of us are damaged by “messed-up childhoods”, inevitably screwing up our own offspring in turn; we cling to relationships for fear of being left alone.
The most successful stories for me were those focused on a clear situation, such as Olive’s thoughts during the wedding reception of her only son Chris, who has married an assertive Californian. Filled with love for the son she may have mentally abused, Olive tries to overcome her “panicky, dismal feeling” and convince herself that this marriage is all for the best until, overhearing a conversation between the bride and a friend, in which Olive is criticised, she gives vent to her suppressed jealousy and resentment through an original and comical act of revenge. I was also impressed by the subtlety of the final story “River” in which Olive, feeling bereft as a widow who had “day after day unconsciously squandered” the time spent with Henry whom she should have valued more, begins to form an unlikely relationship with a man she has always disliked, who is similarly suffering from the loss of his wife, because even “lumpy, aged, wrinkled bodies were as needy as..young, firm ones”.
Other stories, although interesting, seem too rambling and baggy, probably better developed into novellas. An example of this is the middle-aged man, who unexpectedly finds himself suffering from “empty nest syndrome” after the departure of his four sons, has an affair with a sympathetic single woman, and gets involved in trying to help a young girl afflicted with anorexia.
I found least satisfactory the shorter stories with no connection to Olive, which almost seemed included to pad out the collection to a suitable length, such as the tale of the pianist who drinks too much to drown her emotional pain and lack of confidence, or the self-deluding wife who is painfully reminded of her husband’s infidelity.
As the above examples suggest, too many of the characters seem to suffer from deep, even suicidal depression, insanity, illness and premature death. The stories are saved from unbearable grimness by the wry humour, and some blackly comical absurdity, as when, caught short on the way home from an evening out, Olive insists on using the hospital toilet, only to find herself and Henry embroiled in a hold-up by two masked men bent on stealing drugs.
The style is for the most part direct and insightful, apart from the odd excess, as when a suicidal psychiatrist who has been “messed up” by his mother shooting herself recalls, her “need to devour her life had been so huge and urgent a to spray remnants of corporeality across the kitchen cupboards”.
A good choice for a book group, these Pullitzer prize-winning stories will provoke a good deal of discussion, and no doubt divide opinion.