Just this afternoon, after a not-so vigorous bout with some pesky weeds on my front lawn, I took a break and picked up Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and you only have to pore over any page to see why. It’s a breathtaking novel that weaves together 13 stories with Olive, a crustily compassionate retired schoolteacher, as their anchor. Every story is a heart-breaker and every character is torn by regret, loss, hope, and longing.
One of the stories I read today, “Winter Concert,” starts out with a quiet surge of optimism: We see Jane and Bob, an elderly married couple, sharing a comfortable moment of easy intimacy in their car. Their mutual affection shines through and for a while, it seems that the author is finally gifting her readers with an uplifting story about a couple who actually have a happy marriage. Not so fast! As the couple takes their seats at a church concert, the hopeful tone of the story begins to unravel, delicately but relentlessly.
First, we witness Jane and Bob watching Olive Kitteridge and her husband Henry enter the concert and we are learn that Jane dislikes Olive. Then, during a break in the concert, Jane and Bob run into another couple they know. You can feel the tension rising and we find out that Jane dislikes them as well, especially the wife. But that’s not the heart of the story.
The heart of the story is a chance remark by one of couples which Bob brushes off, but Jane pursues. Ultimately, we find out that Bob was in Miami but Jane didn’t know it. We learn that Bob went down there to see someone — a woman. And just by Jane’s reaction and by Bob’s reaction to her reaction, it becomes clear that the woman was someone Bob had an affair or fling with years ago. This fact remains unspoken, but it pierces the story’s heart like a shard of glass. And suddenly, we realize that all the layers of comfort and concern for each other that seem to be cushioning Bob and Jane’s lives are hiding a deep wound. Amazing. Sometimes what you leave out of a story can reveal more than what you put in. Let’s keep this in mind as we write on.