A prickly protagonist with a tender heart

A collection of short stories set in a coastal Maine town.

Random House 270 pp. $25

As heroines go, Olive Kitteridge is about as far away from a Disney princess as Maine is from Florida. Before her retirement, the gruff 60-something was “the seventh-grade math teacher that kids were scared of.” And the years haven’t exactly mellowed her. “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology,” a former co-worker thinks. (Imagine that Miss Viola Swamp, the witchy substitute teacher from the children’s classic “Miss Nelson is Missing,” moved to rural Maine and got married.)

And yet, as she stumps her way through Elizabeth Strout’s translucent new “novel in stories,” Olive Kitteridge, she’s absolutely beautiful.

Maisy Mills, Maine, a small coastal community, is the kind of town where to make good, children have to move away. “Town is the church, and the grange hall, and the grocery store, and these days the grocery store could use a coat of paint.” Strout (author of “Amy and Isabelle”) creates a melancholy world where parents pine for their grown children, spouses grieve in marriages grown cold with misunderstanding, and yet where hope, humor, and a kind of quiet endurance remain.

Olive and her gentle husband, Henry, appear in almost every story, though sometimes just glimpsed from a distance. For example, in “The Piano Player,” they just pass through someone else’s heartbreak, on their way to dinner.

Both the humor and the melancholy are evident in the opening story, “Pharmacy,” where Olive’s husband, Henry, remembers his days running a local store before being forced to sell out to a national chain. About 20 years earlier, Henry had invited his young assistant, Denise, and her husband to dinner, in defiance of Olive’s wishes. (“Not keen on it,” she pronounces when he first mentions the possibility.) Dinner takes place over several pages of simmering hostility and placating niceness, brilliantly underplayed by Strout. Olive makes the couple welcome by slapping plates of baked beans in front of them for an entree, while Henry nervously makes chitchat. For dessert, “they were each handed a blue bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sliding in its center. ‘Vanilla’s my favorite,’ Denise said.
“ ‘Is it,’ said Olive.”

But Strout makes a reader feel protective, even tender, toward Olive – despite her prickliness. Olive’s father committed suicide; she battled years of depression while her son was growing up; and she’s still worried about that son, Christopher, now a middle-aged podiatrist. “She’d been through some things, but never mind. She straightened her back. Other people had been through things, too.”

Her fraught relationship with Christopher is one of the book’s biggest heartbreaks. (A reader would want to hug Olive, if she weren’t likely to swat one away like a low-flying bat.) Take Christopher’s wedding day. Olive sewed her green and pink floral dress herself, and she loved it. “Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding....”

But during the reception, Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law gossiping about her and making fun of the dress. Humiliated, Olive wishes she could tell her, “Listen, Dr. Sue, deep down there is a thing inside me, and sometimes it wells up like the head of a squid and shoots blackness through me. I haven’t wanted to be this way, but so help me, I have loved my son.” As that feels impossible to her, she consoles herself by ruining one of Sue’s sweaters with black magic marker and stealing a shoe.

Each of the 13 tales serves as an individual microcosm of small-town life, with its gossip, small kindnesses, and everyday tragedies. Not all the minor characters stand out the way Henry and Olive do, and there are a pile of them to keep straight by the end. I also couldn’t quite place how one story, “Ship in a Bottle,” meshed with the rest. But those are small flaws far outweighed by the book’s compassion and intelligence.

That compassion finds an unlikely source in Olive. Despite her conflicted feelings about her fellow man – “She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people” – she ultimately comes down on the side of human decency. In “Incoming Tide,” she helps a former student who’s contemplating suicide and, in another story, comforts a grieving widow who discovers a particularly nasty betrayal on the day of her husband’s funeral. And after Henry is incapacitated by a stroke, she visits him every day, bringing their dog to the nursing home parking lot so it can lick Henry’s hands.

When Olive’s story is over, she doesn’t end with bitterness, but equal parts gratitude and regret. “It baffled her, the world. She didn’t want to leave it yet.” Readers will know just how she feels.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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