By Elizabeth Strout
In my teens, when there was a chance to watch world cinema on television, I watched a Russian movie. I remember very little about it - except that it was in black and white and there was a boy and a girl, very much in love. The boy goes off to fight in World War II and does not return. But the last scene is something I can see clearly so many decades later. The girl is grieving, in a way that chokes you up as a viewer - and then she looks up at the sky. A flock of white geese is flying through and for that fleeting moment, the beauty of it makes her smile through her tears. It is almost like the world is telling her and us, that it’s all ok. That however hard are the punches life throws at you, it also throws you lifelines and hope and beauty. You can survive.I read Olive Kitteridge and it brought that scene back to me so very vividly.
Olive Kitteridge is a series of 13 interconnected stories, set in Crosby, Maine - a small seaside town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Olive Kitteridge, a crabby school teacher is the character that holds it all together. It really is her story - but we see her not just through her own eyes but also through others’ stories. Olive is not particularly nice - acerbic, unused to showing affection, a bit of a bully with her young son and accommodative husband. But she has a strong vein of love for her son and her husband running through her, even if that vein is wrapped up in something hard and harsh. It’s that same vein that allows her to deeply empathize with people around her -hurt people, damaged people. People like Kevin who cannot recover from his mother’s suicide; or Denise, the young girl who her husband is almost in love with, who loses her beloved husband in an accident; or Nina, an anorexic; or a criminal in a hostage situation.
Olive herself has her set of life’s challenges - her son, the love of her life, grows apart from her, and she cannot understand why. Her father’s suicide is a lifelong haunting. Her old age is marred by her husband’s invalidity.
And then there are the stories where Olive is not a central character. A piano player whose set life is upset by the return of an old love; a wife who finds out her husband’s infidelity the day of his funeral; a young girl who finds the courage to run away from an overbearing mother.
These are small lives, making just tiny dents in the universe. Very few people are truly likeable. Yet the magnificence of Strout’s characterization ensures we find the universality in every single one of them - each is trying to cope with what life is throwing at him or her, trying to make connections, big or small, trying to find that burst of hope or joy or comfort that makes everything seem bearable. That is the essence of what Strout is trying to say - life is hard, but all of us will find that flock of geese that lightens the soul.
It is a very wise book - the kind that shows how great fiction is really the best kind of teacher there is in the world.