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)

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: War and peace, Fearsome Otto, New Portland writer gets a life-changing surprise, More more >
  Topics: Books , Media, Books, Elizabeth Strout
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
    For someone who is skeptical of the Occupy movement, claiming that anti-corporate agitators are "taking young people for a ride . . . [and] using them for political purposes," Jon Courtney is quite conscious of perceived elitism or sense of entitlement.
  •   COLLINS ASCENDS TO SENIOR STATUS  |  October 19, 2012
    While the other seats in Maine's delegation are being hotly contested, Republican senator Susan Collins gets to observe it all from her new position as the soon-to-be senior member of that four-person group.
  •   POT PATIENTS COULD BE OUT IN THE COLD  |  October 18, 2012
    Mainers who live in federally subsidized low-income housing and legally use marijuana to ease symptoms of chronic conditions may find themselves forced to choose between their shelter and their medicine, if a new Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) policy stays in place.
    It's the Year of the Dragon (Chinese Zodiac), the Year of the Girl (Girl Scouts of the USA), and, perhaps less well known, the International Year of Cooperatives, according to the United Nations.
  •   INEVITABILITY AT THE BALLOT BOX  |  October 03, 2012
    Five weeks. Five weeks of polls, attack ads, debates, and stump speeches.

 See all articles by: DEIRDRE FULTON