Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading Reservations

One of the drawbacks of a quirky range of readings interests is a reluctance to recommend everything I read. Often I enjoy a book completely, yet I realize it's not for everyone. In fact, sometimes I feel almost hurt or offended when I do recommend a book only to find that it didn't evoke the same feelings in other readers.

I just encountered a book that is still rolling around in my head, but for the life of me, I'm not sure who else would enjoy it. I picked up the audiobook of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. At the beginning of the novel, I was baffled by the title, since Olive's husband Henry seemed to be the real protagonist and not only that, but Olive seemed cranky at best. Henry was a kind, gentle man, but Olive didn't seem to appreciate him. She didn't treat him the way I thought he should be treated.

The novel shifted though, often taking little disconnected turns into stories of others in the same town in Maine, perhaps only mentioning Olive in passing as that terrifying math teacher from the high school. Along the way, though, Olive grew on me, especially when the novel shifted to her point of view. She didn't get any sweeter; Strout just revealed how completely human she was.

I tend to cast the characters in the books I read, mixing people I know with actors or public figures, much the way in dreams, I'll be inside my grandmother's house and then walk into the yard and find myself somewhere in another town. For me, Olive because a former teaching colleague who before we worked together had been a terrifying presence at my own high school. When we taught together, I learned that underneath her tough exterior, this woman was tenderhearted and generous. She was also fiercely private, evidently having been hurt enough in the past that she had no intention of opening herself up unnecessarily.

In this novel, readers get to know Olive through her relationships with her husband, her son, and even a teenage girl with a severe eating disorder who crosses her path. She steps back into the life of a former student--actually climbs into his car--who has come back to town to commit suicide, and Olive ends up enlisting his help to save a girl from drowning. In these interwoven side stories, Strout allows the narrative trail to fade without resolution; this is, after all, really Olive's story.

One test of a novel for me is how clear the ending remains with me. Sometimes I am in such a rush to the finish a book that I almost forget it after having slept (like gulping down a brownie without savoring the taste.) This time, I found myself rewinding (more difficult with CD than tape or print text) to read the last few pages one more time. The ending satisfied.



Amber said...

How is said terrifying presence, by the way? We swapped Christmas cards probably til I was out of college, but I haven't heard anything of her in years.

Nancy said...

I heard from her recently. You should write her again. I love her letters. She's had to deal with a lot with her mother. (Do you think she'd recognize herself?) You'd probably like the book.

Amber said...

The book does sound interesting... I've already put it on my list to look for in the bookstore, where I will read the back cover and about 3 random pages and decide whether or not it needs to go home with me.