“All afternoon Olive has been fighting the sensation of moving
underwater—a panicky, dismal feeling, since she has somehow
never managed to learn to swim.”
The “panicky, dismal feeling” that envelopes Olive comes over her at her son’s wedding. This little snippet from Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout only hints at the power and the profound sadness of this novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. There is something relentless about the way the 13 interconnected stories in the novel unfold. In many ways the feeling it evokes reminds me of reading Thomas Hardy. There is a bleak beauty and a sense of inevitability that infuses his work. I feel the same way about Elizabeth Strout’s writing.
In story after story, with heart-breaking precision, Elizabeth unmasks the loneliness and terror that Olive and all those who come into her orbit feel. As a reader, I felt almost embarrassed, as if I had eavesdropped on the innermost thoughts of a bunch of strangers—and then realized that they were just like my own and probably like those of everyone around me as well. Who among us isn’t walking around disappointed, lonely, unable to truly connect, yet longing to be loved and understood? And yet, despite this, we all have flashes of insight, of beauty, of hope that sustain us and keep us moving through our days.
Reading Olive Kitteridge plunged me into a deep sense of melancholy. The moody blueness of its stories seemed to seep into me like the chill salty air of Crosby, Maine where Olive lives. And yet it all seemed so true, so real. These characters seemed so alive, so needy. How did Elizabeth Strout make me feel this way? When I put down a book and find that I’ve totally absorbed the mood and rhythm of it—that it’s become part of who I am for a time—then I know that I’ve read something truly transformative in its power. What a gift! How I yearn to be able to work such magic on readers of my own!