By Elizabeth Strout
This is the story of an aging woman who realizes at the end of her life that she has made a lot of mistakes, ruined important relationships, wasted a lot of opportunities and generally made a mess of things.
But when her life is in ruins around her, she is offered a last opportunity for happiness and she takes it. It is a tragic story with a twist of hope at the end.
I found it disturbing to read because if any of us reflect on our lives we know that we have made mistakes and squandered opportunities and closed doors. The theme is pertinent to us all, but especially those of us whose lives are more than half over with opportunities that will never come round again.
This is a sobering book, made all the more poignant by the deft, original and light-handed presentation. It is really a collection of short stories set (except for one) in a small village on the coast of Maine. Olive is a character in each story, although not always the central one. We catch glimpses of her from many different perspectives as she lives out her life in the village. We see her through the eyes of many people, in many situations over a long stretch of years. Each story stands alone and yet also reveals the complexities of Olive’s character. We learn about her weaknesses and her considerable strengths and we learn about the dynamic between her and her son, Christopher.
Although insightful and compassionate, the stories are sad, about disappointed parents, stale love, bodies that have turned to fat and flab, loss, and early death. The heartbreak of the world is present in this small fishing village and its residents shoulder their sorrows and carry on.
The one relationship that remains a little mysterious is Olive’s marriage to the affable, well-respected Henry. As with so many long-term marriages, it is hard to see what drew the couple together in the first place and what has sustained the relationship since. Henry did have a fling with another woman, but something, decency, habit, timidity, love, drew him back to Olive. But then, Olive also had an affair which ended tragically. Henry seems quiescent in the relationship, but Olive is haunted by his remark, “In all the years we’ve been married, all the years, I don’t believe you’ve ever once apologized. For anything.”
Olive is a maddening woman, but she is complex, with certain strengths and insights and sympathies. Many people in the community dislike her, but I could not help liking her forthright, strong opinions, her disdain for namby-pambies, and her impatient snort, “Hells Bells!” In the stories, “ Basket of Trips” and “Starving” we see her sensitivity and generosity and wisdom in assessing people and situations. She is impatient, independent, and always thinks she is right, but she is strong, and can be kind and sympathetic.
Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer Prize for this book in 2008. I would say she merited it for the haunting character she has produced, the vivid and sympathetic depiction of a Maine coastal village and its characters, and the original and deft way she unveiled her main character, revealing her through so many perspectives, encounters, relationships and episodes which showed her complexity, failures and also her strengths. At the end, my heart broke for the mistakes Olive had made and yet I admired her tenacity and strength to keep on going and have a final try for happiness.
The theme is that foundation of happiness, relationships: the hit and miss of them, the things unsaid but understood, the durability and frailness of them, the inner strength that they require of us and the central, healing quality that makes them essential to us.