A Hit And A Miss

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.


23 thoughts on “A Hit And A Miss

  1. Oh, dear…none of the realities of growing older for me, thank you. The cold breath of age blows down my neck enough these days, and my joints creak alarmingly as it is. I think I’ll opt for Mariana. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I did appreciate Olive Kitteridge, but it was not a comforting read by any means, and not a book you could call enjoyable reading (especially if you’ve just passed a rather momentous birthday).

    Mariana sounds simply delicious, and I’ll be looking for that. I loved To Capture the Castle.

  3. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Olive Kitteridge. I understand what you’re saying, but I guess I looked at it differently. I’ll be 42 in June, and I loved it. I looked at it in some ways as a warning against doing certain things or taking things for granted, etc.

  4. Grad – lol! My joints often creak, too, if that’s any consolation. They are both good books, but undeniably, Mariana is the comfort read, and it was very comforting. 🙂

    Becca – Appreciate is a very good word. I thought that there was much to appreciate in Olive Kitteridge and I swear it was just my mood at the time that prevented me from appreciating more. I’d love to know what you think of Mariana if you get hold of it – it’s very lovely.

    Lisa – well I remember that you enjoyed it so believe me, I felt really bad that I didn’t get on better with it. Still, as I said, I think it’s a very fine book and I’m sure my mood was much to blame. Very sensible of you to read it the way you did, and I wish I’d had that attitude to hand last week!

  5. It’s been ages since I read Monica Dickens and you’ve reminded me how much I enjoyed her books. I’m going to get one from the library next Saturday. About Olive Kitteridge–I haven’t read it. But all the different reactions remind me that literature is like love in that there is such a range of taste and a book for every kind. Okay the analogy is about to break down because reading a lot of different books is considered literate rather than promiscuous. So on to the subject of aging. Old age, sickness, mortality are things we all grapple with. But I know a number of women in their 70’s and 80’s who are living vibrant lives, working, traveling, still learning and enjoying life. As well, I am thinking about a writing group I used to facilitate. It was before I had kids, when I had more time, and I fell into working with seniors. I’d intended to work with teens, but it just worked out that way and it was more rewarding and instructive than I could ever have imagined. One of my students was a delightful writer and mentor to the younger writers who were only in their 70’s. He was 90. He still lived in his own apartment and invited the writing class there for tea and cake. He had begun preparing for retirement early, expecting that he wouldn’t have a long life because his father had died relatively young. His one concession to age was that he had to give up sculpting in clay because his thumbs were too weak in his 80’s, but took up painting instead. There was another younger man, only in his mid-80’s who wrote a fascinating story about a wrestler who liked women’s underthings, not for their eroticism, but for their softness against bruised skin. His wife didn’t write, but contributed something she had read at every class. She was not especially intellectual but she never had a negative word to say about anyone, and always found something kind and supportive to say. She had a great zest for life and she taught me a lot about the value of an open heart.

  6. I so relate to the situation the Monica found herself in. Once when Jim was gone for a year at sea there was a rocket attack on one of the Navy ships in the Arabian Sea. In that case it was not his ship that was attacked, but he was involved in the fire fighting. I never had a chance to wait all night either, the newspaper article made it clear which ship had been attacked so I was only breathless for about a minute.

    I know people like Olive. They are hard to be around for sure. I could easily be just like her if I don’t watch it. Perhaps I should read it as a cautionary tale.

  7. Olive Kitteridge sounds formidably hard going, but I read Mariana last week again and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is what I think of as a quintessential Persephone book. And reminds me I must put in another order, it’s been a while.

  8. Some books really only work when we’re in the right mindset for them – this happens to me a lot, I suspect I might not enjoy Olive Kitteridge right now either, although to be warned of its preoccupation is perhaps very helpful.

  9. What very informative and interesting reviews, litlove. It sounds as if Elizabeth Strout has had a good idea and seen the truth of people behaving worst to their nearest and dearest, but if she then wraps that round the theme of ageing, how can she avoid the book being altogether lowering?
    The Monica Dickens extract made me laugh lots. I shall look it up straight away.

  10. I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge but perhaps I’ll give it a try.I’m in the mood for difficult characters. As for age it’s horrors—it is a mighty treacherous landscape,and not for a 40 year old, if she’s at all reluctant. It’s fascinating at 30 and at my age (54 with an older husband, elderly mother) I have no choice…but at 40 you’re still working out the last vestiges of youth, individuation, the great surprise that can come any moment (and really can). They tell me that can happen at 58 or 65, too, and I don’t doubt it, but knowledge has weight.I know there’s an answer to to this feeling of: why bother anymore? but it’s a dark passage until you find it.

    Don’t think about old yet. Think about entering your prime. 40 can be a great age. 45 too. You can still wear strapless dresses. You’re beautiful in a whole new way.

  11. What two very different books! I don’t think I could read Olive Kitteridge as Olive sounds too much like my mother-in-law! Mariana, however, sounds delightful.

  12. Things hurt just as much and there’s a whole lot less to look forward to.

    Ouch! No wonder you didn’t make it to the end of that one … I mean, Debbie Downer, geez.

    Olive is clearly the kind of woman toward whom I have a tendency to make subtextually withering remarks, quite sure that she’s not bright enough to understand the insult.

  13. I thoroughly enjoyed both reviews, and I believe you are the only writer whom I could read write a difficult review and still make me want to read the book, if only to see if my opinion holds with yours! Both are on my tbr list, now. I must admit, regarding Olive Kitteridge, I do generally like my central characters to somehow, someway, find redemption, however small, but that’s not the way life always works out and so I guess some literature needs to mirror that…

  14. Lilian – I think the analogy of books and love works well – it’s just a free love community, the book world! But how very nice to have access to a delightful group of elderly people. When I hit 40 (and after reading this book) I thought to myself that I ought to get involved in some charity work with the elderly to try to improve my image of what lies ahead. But then I thought that elderly people in need of charity probably wouldn’t be the ideal group to work with in that respect. Much better if good examples of ageing fall into your hands, as it were!

    Healingmagichands – oh I feel for you! But so glad to know that your trauma was shortlived. Lisa in one of the comments above said she read Olive Kitteridge as a cautionary tale and that it really worked for her like that. I wish I’d thought of doing that before I began it last week!

    Ali – I am so happy to know you are going to read it. I didn’t want my own issues to cloud the fact that it’s an amazingly well-written book. I’ll look out on your blog in case you review it.

    Ms Musings – I am afraid of what would happen if I gave into my Persephone-lust right now. Oh dear, if Mariana is indicative of their average book then I really fear I will not be able to keep myself from putting in an order…

    Verbivore – I think it would have helped if I’d known about the subject matter. Amazingly I read a couple of online reviews and failed to take it in. So there you go, I have no excuse really. But that cover dominated my impression. I quite agree that most book failures are due to the circumstances under which they are read.

    Cathie – those two books could not have been further apart in their way of looking at the world! Olive Kitteridge is a very powerful novel, and you’re spot on that the mistreatment of loved ones is a knockout theme. But Mariana has all the laughs. I loved it.

    Margaret – that’s such a lovely comment, thank you! I so like the idea of calling my 40s my prime. How much nicer that sounds. I keep hoping that living will supply the answers to that perennial question ‘why bother’. I can easily imagine that it becomes more and not less pressing with time. But I do believe that epiphany can strike at any time, and life is nothing if not perpetually surprising. I would love to know what you make of the Strout novel if you read it.

    Stefanie – lol! for the mother-in-law comment. Olive really is everyone’s dreaded relative. But a fine friend, also, in a crisis. Mariana is just a lighthearted delight, with enough witty lines to save it from any descent into the saccharine. I’d love to know what you think of it if you read it.

    David – it’s a shame you didn’t get written into the book as a character – that would have been fun to witness. Did you see on my previous post I gave you a blogging award? You might not do them, but you might as well enjoy the accolade.

    Courtney – I can’t say for sure whether Olive does or doesn’t make it to redemption, as I didn’t quite get to the end. So there is plenty to hope for in that respect! I would love to know what you make of either of these novels if you read them. They are both very well-written in their extremely different ways.

  15. I’ve wanted to read Olive K. for a while now, but have held off for the reasons you describe why it didn’t work for you at the moment. It was recommended to me after I read Margaret Laurence’s Stone Angel, which also deals with the ageing process (and a rather cantankerous old woman who it can be hard to be sympathetic to at times) and though it was an excellent book and one I admire, it wasn’t always easy reading. Perhaps I’ll just continue to keep it on the list for later. As for Mariana, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Isn’t it the perfect comfort read? Just reading what you’ve written makes me want to pull it out and read it again. I have her One Pair of Hands, so maybe it’s time to dig that one out…

  16. The Strout book sounds very good, even if it does require the right time and mood. Your line “sniping at her husband for his irritating good nature” cracked me up … um, yes, I know something about that …. this book does hit close to home, I can see. And I’ll have to read Mariana — and will have to get more Persephones!

  17. Well, the Strout sounds absolutely like something I ought to avoid right now, especially when you say you’d cross the street to avoid Olive. I love Mariana (one of the first Persephone books I ever bought)! And you’ve reminded me that it just might be the PERFECT thing to re-read these days. What I love about it is all you mention, plus the fact that it ends well when it could so easily have ended horribly.

  18. I read Mariana many moons ago as a teenager when I found an old Penguin edition in a second hand bookshop. Did not think much of it at the time, well you wouldn’t would you when you were a carefree non-deep thinking sixteen year old? When I discovered Persephone books and spotted this I was intrigued and bought it, sat down and read it straight through and, of course, loved it. There are certain books that one should only read when a bit older and wiser and I have found this with a huge amount of the Persephone imprint. When I worked in a library and in came these old ladies who took out Dorothy Whipple, I stuck my nose in the air. Did the same with Angela Thirkell, Hugh Walpole and the like. Oh the arrogance of youth!

    Now a newly retired lady I read all of the above mentioned authors and others I used to look down on, with huge enjoyment. Sometimes getting older can have its compensations.

    The free bus pass helps as well….

  19. Danielle – oh yup, I can see the parallels between Olive K and the Margaret Laurence. They are equally formidable, admirable and unloveable characters. On the other hand, as it were, I loved One Pair of Hands, in fact, I loved all of Dickens’ memoir books. She is so funny and witty and wise.

    Dorothy – Elizabeth Strout really is a wonderful writer and I would be very tempted to try another of her novels. Mariana is a treat, and oh don’t mention getting more Persephones – I am doing everything in my power to prevent myself from heading straight down that particular route!

    Emily – I wondered whether you had read Mariana – I am so glad you loved it too, but then, how could you not love it? And no, not the moment for you to read Olive Kitteridge, but thankfully there are many other delightful and uplifting books in the world!

    Elaine – oh congratulations on your recent retirement! How lovely to be free. I could live with that, I think, and it is definitely worth getting older for. And you are so right that the passage of time alters one’s relationship to these sorts of authors so much. You have to have lived through some of their experiences to really engage with them. I am longing to try Dorothy Whipple and Angela Thirkell and fear that Hugh Walpole, although the name only rings a distant bell, will look like someone I absolutely have to read if I start to read your reviews…!

  20. Having recently discovered Hugh Walpole I am amazed that he has passed me by. Please do get hold of Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, recently republished by Capuchin Press and reviewed by me. A simply marvellous book

  21. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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