Friday, February 13, 2009

Olive you.

In my household, we scour consignment shops for old furniture to love and fill with junk -- and the first thing I always look for is dovetailing. Maybe it's the industrial arts student in me -- I never did get over learning how to use a miter saw -- but when I see dovetailing, my heart leaps.

I don't generally expect the same feats of construction from my literature, but I have found it in Elizabeth Strout's much-hailed new book Olive Kitteredge, a collection of thirteen interwoven stories about a small town in New England. The stories plumb the quiet dramas of several families in the town, but all have the same red thread weaving through them -- the character Olive Kitteredge.

Now, we see Olive at various points in her life, and she isn't always pretty, in deed or in character. Most of the time, she is just plain mean: a curmudgeonly, judgmental, bitter woman who engages with her neighbors and family members, it sometimes seems, just to have more to be angry about. She nags her only son to the point of exasperation, she visits a neighbor who has weathered hardship just to get a taste of some good ole schadenfreude. Anytime something happens to a character in this book, Olive acts like it's just the universe conspiring to confirm that she already knows everything.

And yet, Olive Kitteredge is almost entirely lovable. She may not have a lot of nice things to say, but what she says is generally profound and hilarious. Or as one of the minor characters in the book puts it, "she says weird things that have a lot of meaning."

My only complaint with Olive Kitteredge would be that I actually wanted more Olive.

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