Shall we get the miss out of the way first? I was very disappointed not to enjoy Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout more, particularly since some of my blogging friends whose taste I respect had expressed a high opinion of it. Let’s be clear; this book certainly didn’t fail me due to a quality issue. It’s beautifully written, poignant, insightful and clever in conception. In a series of short stories, Strout circles her main protagonist, Olive Kitteridge, showing her in relation to her husband, her son, her friends and her enemies. Sometimes the story involves her centrally, on other occasions she is peripheral or destined to make only a brief if significant intervention towards the end. But as the stories build up, so the reader develops an ever more intricate portrait of Olive and we watch her as time passes and she struggles to deal with the thankless business of ageing.
When the book begins, Olive is a middle-aged woman with a grown up son (although the first story has flashbacks to an earlier incarnation). But it’s the rapid progress to old age that is Strout’s territory here. In this respect I was completely mislead by the cover of the novel that shows the bare back and shoulders of a young woman in a strapless dress. If it hadn’t given me completely false expectations, I might have picked a better moment to read it. I loved the thought of a novel that revolved around a central character, showing her from multiple perspectives, but I wasn’t anticipating the perils of growing older to be the main focus. Olive’s deteriorating relationships with her husband and son provide an important theme; Olive is a big woman, we’re repeatedly told, big in opinions too, a bit of a bulldozer, you might say. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, probably due to a career as a school teacher, she is often contemptuous, easily bored or irritated by others. There’s a deep well of resentment and anger inside her that she has never explored or acknowledged herself but it comes out in her rough handling of those she loves. That is her paradox; she does love both husband and son, but she takes her bad feelings out on them too, bullying her son with her big emotions, sniping at her husband for his irritating good nature. Her son’s marriage, quite late in life, is the first step in what will end up a bitter estrangement for her, as she overhears his new wife at the wedding mentioning what a hard time Chris has had growing up. Olive can’t hear this, and nor can she make it right much later in the novel when she visits him in California with his second wife and behaves rather badly. Olive’s perspective has petrified into her own sense of righteousness, and any stirrings of horror at the memory of some of the things she’s done are quickly flattened out before they might seriously challenge her self-image. Funnily enough, it’s only those closest to Olive who suffer at her hands. In one of the best stories in the book, she imposes her hefty presence on a young man who is contemplating his own suicide and manages to hang on in there with him long enough to make a difference. And in another story she teams up with some of her local friends to try to help a young girl suffering from anorexia. Olive is like a burning brazier – those furthest away get warmed by her heat, but those too close get withered by the flames. This is a remarkable portrait, but to be honest, Olive is the kind of woman I would cross the street to avoid if I met her in real life.
The main problem for me was that I should have read this book some other time, not just having turned 40 and being somewhat aware of the passage of time. This book pulls no punches on the realities of growing older; the physical decay, the loss of loved ones to humiliating, devastating illnesses, the growing estrangement of relationships that have outlived their sustaining love. And yet, the hope that age brings with it the wisdom and insight necessary to weather these last, bitter storms is repeatedly undermined. Life can still surprise Strout’s characters, with its outpourings of emotion, its cruel unpredictability. Things hurt just as much and there’s a whole lot less to look forward to. It wasn’t quite the message I was hoping for, just at that particular moment. If the book hadn’t been so well written, I might have managed to put up with it, but it was so poignant and painful that I will admit to not quite reaching the end. But I put it back on the shelf with another day in mind. It really is very good and well worth reading, and just because I was having a wimpish moment, there is no reason why other readers wouldn’t get a great deal out of it.
So I went in search of something more light-hearted and was fortunate enough to place my hands on the utterly delightful Mariana by Monica Dickens. This was my first Persephone book ever, and I can see why readers love their shape and size; it was just a gorgeous volume. But the real pleasure is the story itself. It’s absolutely for fans of I Capture the Castle or The Pursuit of Love as it may well be a romance, but it’s the innate humour of family life and growing up that forms the real focus. The novel opens with Mary, grown-up and married, waiting out the war alone in her house in the country. When she switches on the radio, the news she hears couldn’t be worse; the destroyer her husband is on has been sunk and whilst there are survivors she doesn’t know whether he is amongst them. There is no way of getting news that night and so she is forced to sit it out, reliving in fantasy how the events of her life brought them together. And then the real story begins and we are transported back to Charbury, the beautiful house in Devon where her extended family all gathered for idyllic school holidays. We pass through Mary’s misguided but charming infatuation with her older cousin, Denys, her disastrous attempt to study acting, her dream year in Paris when she gets engaged to the wrong man, and much else besides. What makes this such a delightful book is Mary’s gloriously witty narrative. I laughed out loud many times and was gently buoyed along by its sustained, intrinsic humour. Here’s a passage where the children are staging a play that Mary has written, one Charbury summer holiday, and Denys, in the lead role naturally, is making a pre-performance speech ‘which they had decided, from long experience of their parents, would be essential.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, during the execution scene in the next act, mothers” (with a glance at his own) “are requested to keep their seats, and not rush on to the stage, because it’s really not as dangerous as it looks.” With this alarming announcement, the dust-sheet folded over the string behind him slid jerkily aside, revealing a hanging noose. Aunt Mavis gave a slight scream, Granny said, “Oh, dear,” and Taggie behind her said, “Will you look at that?” and the black furry caterpillars that were her eyebrows shot up into her hair. “A trifle macabre. Almost Tchekov, one might say,” murmured Uncle Guy, as he crossed his long legs and leaned back, preparing to enjoy himself. Needless to say, when Sarah, as Sir Egbert of Corsica, in Denys’ riding breeches and boots with a green satin blouse of her mother’s, dropped through the trap-door and was hanged, mothers and aunts rushed on to the stage as one protesting woman. The play came to an abrupt end, cutting off Denys’ “Darling, I loved you the very first moment I saw you,” and the final kiss.
“But I told you – ‘ he protested through the uproar. “Oh these women!” He shrugged his shoulders and walked off the stage to join the men. Mary was so excited by the play’s success, that she was not upset by its untimely end, although she was disappointed to miss even a theatrical embrace from Denys. The most chagrined person was Michael, who, in the executioner’s bransack, was all ready to play ‘God Save the King’ on his mouth-organ, and now nobody wanted to hear.’
It’s simply a charming novel, and one guaranteed to make you happy. Recommended for convalescences, holidays and dark days of all kinds.