The stories in this volume are all about what would be called ordinary people in a small town in Maine. Olive, a retired schoolteacher, appears somewhere in each story, and if you choose to read this book, I predict that you will anxiously await her entrance into each story. It is misleading to say that the stories are about ordinary people, because, like Alice Munro, another incredible writer of our time, what Strout shows us is the extraordinary complexity of each of her characters. I suppose one would say that the stories are written in first-person narratives, and each voice is utterly convincing. But through some magic that Strout possesses, the voices are not quite first person; the very complexity and contradictory nature of emotions that pass through each character (while experiencing what, from the outside, would appear to be everyday, even mundane events) requires a kind of second-person view. Few of us would admit or even be aware of just how conflicting our own emotional reactions are to events that occur—how anger and joy often fuse, how envy and admiration follow in such quick succession that we, ourselves, could not say honestly which is the dominant feeling.
Olive is a believable and wonderful a character; she is at once angry, spiteful, impatient, inconsiderate, deeply empathetic, wise, and kind. Strout refuses to do what so many writers do; she refuses to create heroes who are unmixed good fighting against others who are sinister and dark. Olive is light and dark, kind and merciless, incredibly strong and utterly lonely and weak. She is dogmatic and opinionated, a stern math teacher feared by her students and yet remembered and in some sense admired by all or most of them as well.
It is no mistake that I mention Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout in the same breath, nor was I surprised to see that Munro reviewed Strout’s first book, calling it “a novel of shining integrity and humor, about the bravery and hard choices of what is called ordinary life.” I see Munro as quite literally the finest living author, and that I put Strout in her company is the highest praise I can give. Both write usually of small towns and unremarkable people, and both spin out stories that scintillate with a deep understanding of love and loneliness and fear of death.
Some books can be, if not captured, at least summed up by quoting a few passages or by describing general themes. Not so with Strout. To appreciate her greatness and her insights, one must read page by page, emotion by emotion. Still, let me see if I can say a bit about a couple of the stories that may entice you to read her. Death and dying are central to this book just as they are to real life. In one sad but lovely sketch, Strout describes the grocer’s wife, Marlene Bonney and the funeral of her husband Ed. Olive attends the funeral partly because she knows that her own husband, Henry, would have wanted her to go, though he has suffered a stroke and is in a care facility, blind and silent and vacant. But quite apart from what Henry might have wanted, “…she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement.” Instead, she hears how Marlene and her husband, even as he was suffering from an incurable illness, would bring out a basket filled with travel brochures, would talk of all the places that they wanted to go, all the trips they would take. None of the trips are taken; Ed dies, leaving Olive to wonder, “Who, who, does not have their basket of trips? It isn’t right, Molly Collins said that today, standing out by the church. It isn’t right. Well. It isn’t.”
Henry, Olive’s husband, is as sweet and optimistic as Olive is astringent and pessimistic, and his very sweetness and optimism gall Olive, provoking her to lash out at him and at his kindness to others. When their only child, a son, finally marries, Henry immediately accepts the new wife, feeling relief for his son. Olive’s reactions are much more mixed as she chafes against the know-it-all new wife.
Yes, life itself is tricky business, as Olive and Strout well know. I suppose I could say that Strout is the master of describing the little bursts that keep us going, the little bursts that hold loneliness at bay, at least for the moment. One such little burst occurs for Olive late in life, after the death of her husband and the emotional distancing of her son. It comes in the form of a new and unexpected relationship with a man who has also lost most everything.
Of course, right now their sex life is probably very exciting, and they undoubtedly think that will last, the way new couples do. They think they’re finished with loneliness, too.
This thought causes Olive to nod her head slowly as she lies on the bed. She knows that loneliness can kill people—in different ways can actually make you die. Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.
What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union—what pieces life took out of you.
Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.