Review 1526: Olive, Again

Best of Ten!
Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Day 1290: Literary Wives! The Stars Are Fire

Cover for The Stars Are FireToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

After a winter that seemed like it would never end, the autumn in Maine of October 1947 is in severe drought. Grace Holland is pregnant and the mother of two small children. She feels that her marriage is in jeopardy. Her husband, Gene, never loving or communicative, has barely spoken to her since his mother died. Soon, though, she has the very existence of her family to worry about as fires threaten their small beach community.

Grace is able to save her children and her neighbor’s family, but Gene, who went out to fight the fire, doesn’t return. Everything she owned is gone, so now Grace must learn to live an entirely different life.

Anita Shreve knows how to tell a story, and this one drew me right in. Her characters are vibrant and believable. A few of her books have brought me to tears. This is not one of them, but it is still an absorbing novel to read.

What does this novel say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

At the beginning of the novel, Grace’s life as a wife is one of loneliness. Her husband barely speaks to her or touches her. We get the feeling he blames her, as does his mother, for getting pregnant so that he had to marry her. Left all day without a car, she can walk to shop, see her mother, or visit her girlfriend, Rosie. In her own house, however, she is treated as someone to keep the house, care for the kids, and occasionally provide sex.

Spoilers ahead . . . . Sorry, they’re unavoidable.

After she learns independence when Gene disappears during the fire, her marriage changes with his return. Now, he begins to behave with the more classic traits of an abusive husband. He speaks to her cruelly, tries to isolate her in their home, and eventually becomes threatening and physically abusive. Since the fire, Grace has had to learn to survive, and she has to figure out how to do that in an abusive marriage.

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Day 1041: Enon

Cover for EnonEnon is the second novel by Paul Harding and it follows the story of the same family as in his first novel, Tinkers. That novel was about George Crosby and his memories of his epileptic father. Enon is about George’s grandson, Charlie Crosby, and his life in the village of Enon.

At the beginning of Enon, Charlie’s beloved 13-year-old daughter Kate is killed when her bicycle is hit by a car. Soon after, without much attempt to work anything out, Charlie’s wife Susan returns to her parents’ home and he never hears from her again. Charlie begins a downward spiral into grief, anger, and an addiction to pain killers.

In some respects, Enon is a little more accessible than Tinkers. It is characterized by the same beautiful prose, especially in the descriptions of nature. Further, the setting in the old New England village with its sense of history is fully imagined.

Yet, I wasn’t so interested in watching Charlie fall apart, nor did I enjoy his hallucinogenic dreams about Kate, where she turns to obsidian, for example. I’m starting to realize I don’t enjoy reading about dreams in fiction.

I was also nonplussed by Charlie’s relationship to Susan. No wonder their marriage fell apart. Although they seem to be a happy family at the beginning of the novel, Susan is always somewhere folding clothes while Charlie and Kate go off on adventures. I was surprised when she left just a few days after Kate’s death, but it became clear she wasn’t important to her own family.

So, if this subject matter attracts you, you might enjoy this book more than I did.

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Day 1009: The Miracle on Monhegan Island

Cover for The Miracle on Monhegan IslandI enjoyed Elizabeth Kelly’s The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, so I was pleased to find she had written another novel. I felt a further pleasure in store because of its setting. Ever since I found online a map of the island with links and information about rental cottages, I’ve dreamed of renting a cottage on Monhegan Island.

I didn’t count on the dog, though. This novel is narrated by a Pekingese named Ned, a truly intelligent Pekingese with lots of insight to offer. I could almost buy this approach in The Art of Racing in the Rain, but not quite. Here, I didn’t buy it at all.

Ned is stolen from the back of his car by Spark Monahan, who takes him as a gift for his son Hally, whom he hasn’t seen in four years. Hally has been living on Monhegan Island with Spark’s father Pastor Ragnar and his brother Hugh.

Spark is the family black sheep, but Ragnar has recently also run into trouble. He was in charge of a concert on the island, but his security wasn’t able to handle the number of people who tried to attend it for free. Now he is being sued for proceeds that were never collected from the people who got in without paying. He is the pastor of a church he basically invented and has the ambition to be a cult leader.

Hally is just beginning to find out some of the secrets of his family, and he finds them upsetting. One day when he is off by himself, he returns claiming to have seen and spoken to the Virgin Mary. Pastor Ragnar latches on to this event and starts trying to make the most of it, while Hugh and Spark more or less passively object. At a second event, people attending claim to see odd effects in the sunlight, and soon Hally is receiving national attention.

Spark and Hugh know that Hally’s mother was mentally ill when she died, so they are worried about Hally. But no one actually does anything to stop Ragnar.

Aside from the problems of the narration, Kelly leaves nothing unsaid. The dog is always pointing things out to you in case you missed them. At the same time her focus is all over the place. There are discussions about religion and faith, mental illness, inheritance, celebrity. The characters, the most interesting part of the novel, sometimes get lost in the baggage.

Also, I missed the darker overtones of the previous novel. Although this novel provides plenty of dark overtones, it lands solidly in the feel-good zone by the end, which for me is not necessarily a good thing.

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Day 565: Olive Kitteridge

Cover for Olive KitteridgeThis collection of linked short stories lucidly illuminates the contradictions that make up the human condition. The link that binds the stories together is Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher in small-town Maine.

Olive is plain-spoken and gruff. Some people are afraid of her, but she can show sudden compassion and insight.

In “The Pharmacy,” Olive’s gentle husband Henry falls in love with his young pharmacy assistant without ever making his feelings known. In “A Little Burst,” Olive steals some of her daughter-in-law’s clothes during the wedding at the house the Kitteridges built for their son. She has overheard Suzanne saying nasty things about her. In “Tulips,” after Henry has a heart attack, Olive reflects upon their pain that their son Christopher moved away to California with his wife, and even after divorcing did not return or invite them to visit.

In other stories, Olive is less important or simply a presence. A timely conversation with her seems to keep a young man named Kevin from attempting suicide in “Incoming Tide.” In another story, the Kitteridges stroll to the restaurant through the bar where Angie plays the piano every night and thinks about the man she loved.

With neighbors and strangers, Olive says exactly the right thing in a difficult moment, and with her loved ones exactly the wrong thing. Many of the stories are sad but ultimately touching. Strout uses an unusual structure to create the sense of a lovely and affecting novel.

Day 542: The Burgess Boys

Cover for The Burgess BoysBest Book of the Week!
I had an unusual reaction to The Burgess Boys. Part of the way through, I was interested in how it would come out but at the same time wondered if I was liking it. By the end of the novel, though, I found it extremely satisfying.

The novel is about the clearly dysfunctional Burgess family, from a small town in Maine. When the three Burgess children were small, their father was killed in a freakish accident, run over by his own car rolling down the hilly driveway. All three kids were inside the car, and four-year-old Bob was behind the wheel when their mother came out to find their father dead. Mild-mannered Bob has carried this burden all his life, dealing with ridicule from his brother Jim and dislike from his twin sister Susan.

Jim and Bob long ago left Maine for New York City. But they are called back by a distraught Susan. Her son Zach has committed the inexplicable act of throwing a pig’s head into a mosque during Ramadan. Although Susan shows a good deal of ignorance about the local Somali population, the family cannot comprehend Zach’s action. He is a quiet misfit teenager, confused and pathetic, who has no friends. Unhappy especially since his father left for Sweden, he nevertheless does not seem to be angry or have any strong feelings at all except for being plainly terrified by the trouble he is in. He has a reason for his actions that is generally clueless, but it takes awhile for the family to discover it.

A former hotshot lawyer in Maine and famous for having won a high-profile case, Jim is the person Susan is relying on. Zach goes in to the police station to confess to the crime, and it seems as if the case will be handled quietly, but the civil liberties groups get involved and soon there is an uproar. When Jim’s grandstanding at a political event does more harm than good, Zach is charged with a hate crime.

As Jim takes charge while Bob tries to calm and comfort, the dynamics within the family emerge. At the same time, we learn a little about the terrified, disoriented Somali community. During the initial hearings, shopkeeper Abdikarim glimpses the true Zach and tries to help him.

As for the characters, I heartily disliked the person that everyone else admires. I think Strout intended that, and part of my satisfaction with the novel is about how that turns out.

Strout’s rich, detailed exposition is matched by her empathy for all her characters. Although I disliked some of them, they are complex and deeply human. This apparently simple story wisely examines the dynamics of guilt, family tensions, social isolation, and blind political correctness.

Life in the small Maine town seems gray and dismal at first, brightened only by the fall foliage and the hues of Somali garments. Jim and Bob have fled, and Susan and Zach are unhappy. There is little employment or hope for the residents. By the end of the novel, everyone has a little more hope.

 

Day 157: Empire Falls

Cover for Empire FallsBest Book of the Week!

I’ve been picking up Richard Russo novels at the bookstore for years and putting them back down because I wasn’t sure I’d like the subject matter, but now that I’ve read Empire Falls, I wish I’d been reading them all along.

Miles Roby’s life hasn’t been going too well. He quit college to run a diner in his dying home town in Maine when his mother was ill, and 20 years later he’s still flipping burgers. His wife Janine has left him for her dim-witted personal trainer. He has been in love with one of his waitresses, Charlene, since high school but sees no sign that she returns his feelings. He has an uneasy relationship with the owner of the diner, Mrs. Whiting. The only thing that seems right in his life is his teenage daughter Tick, and she is having problems at school.

Miles’s father is an alcoholic ne’er-do-well who was hardly ever around when he was a child. He comes around when he wants to earn a few dollars or hit up Miles for money. The mill has been shut down for years, and most of the townspeople don’t feel like they have much of a future.

Miles’s brother David is recovering from a drug habit, but his cooking and new ideas have recently been responsible for an increase in the diner’s business, and he wants Miles to move the business to a larger restaurant. Miles has been avoiding a decision. He has only been hanging on because he doesn’t know what else to do and because Mrs. Whiting long ago promised to leave him the diner in her will. She owns most of the town and behaves as if she owns him, too.

Miles doesn’t realize it, but his fortunes have been stymied for years because of events in the past. His only clue to these events is his recollection of a summer spent with his mother on Martha’s Vineyard when he was a small boy.

A pleasure of this book is its myriad of small-town characters and the warm, witty way that Russo depicts them. Russo is skilled at involving you in the fortunes of Miles, his friends, his family, and even his town. This novel is delightful.