When I'm sixty-four

In this novel told in stories, age is only a number
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 2, 2008

It’s significant that for this twenty-something reader, the least gripping tales in Elizabeth Strout’s new “novel in stories” are those that deal with teenagers and young adults. In Olive Kitteridge, Strout has so colorfully drawn the world of middle age and senior citizenry that the noisy drama of youth is out of place here.

The love affairs and disappointments of old people may not seem like particularly entertaining or edgy fodder, but Strout makes it so, reminding the reader that impulsiveness, bodily desire, and insecurity know no age limit. Strout, a Portland native now living in New York City, portrays an adulthood that is both complicated and rich.

In coastal Crosby, Maine (a fictional locale, supposedly situated near Cooks Corner), lives intersect frequently, and secrets are few and far between — spouses have affairs, children unhappily run off to the big city, old men develop dementia — and everybody knows about it. Their stories, told in a chronology that freely skips and backtracks, read like a cross between a community newspaper’s gossip-page archives and a collection of padlocked diaries, replete with joys and sorrows that range from earth-shattering to everyday.

Present in many of these lives is Olive Kitteridge, a formidable mother, math teacher, and wife who plays a main or supporting role in Strout’s interconnected, but not directly related, stories. Olive’s nose is often in other people’s business, and her attitude is abrasive, but her heart, really, is in the right place.

Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories | Random House | April 2008 | $25 | 270 pages
Why else would we cringe — with sympathy, not schadenfreude — at Olive’s heartbreaks, her humiliations? Why else would we boil with embarrassment and rage, as Olive does, when her brand-new daughter-in-law is overheard criticizing Olive’s (handmade!) mother-of-the bride dress?

It’s because we root for her, despite her faults. It’s because no matter our age, we see something of ourselves in Olive and her cohorts. And along with that identification comes the realization that life remains both thorny and pleasurable until the very end.

For some, this may be an exhausting realization — and certainly, Strout does an excellent job of portraying the wearied angst of old age, as in this scene from “A Little Burst,” which tells the story of Olive’s son’s wedding: “Oh, it hurts — actually makes Olive groan as she sits on the bed. What does Suzanne know about a heart that aches so badly at times that a few months ago it almost gave out, gave up altogether? It is true she doesn’t exercise, her cholesterol is sky-high. But that is only a good excuse, hiding how it’s her soul, really, that is wearing out.” (71)

However, Strout doesn’t want the proposition of a long life to be daunting. Take Janie and Bob Houlton, a long-married couple who are friends with the Kitteridges. In “Winter Concert,” Strout tells the redemptive story of their marriage, which has been tested, and will survive. “No matter what people’s lives might hold ... still and all, people were compelled to celebrate because they knew somehow, in their different ways, that life was a thing to celebrate.” (126)

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