Yet again, one of the best books of the year is short stories…sort of. Last year’s was Unaccustomed Earth, stories describing the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land that defines the human condition,* and this years is Olive Kitteridge, about the bittersweet moments that make up life, sometimes much more bitter than sweet. Elizabeth Strout’s book is a novel in snapshots that are nearly short stories but not quite. Olive Kitteridge is not the main character in all the stories, in fact in some she is just a passing face in a crowd. And yet, her harsh introduction in the first story colors the rest of our perceptions about the people we meet.
And it’s beautiful. Terrible, but beautiful.
In the very first story, we watch Olive’s husband Henry in his chaste relationship with Denise, the shopgirl at his pharmacy. He is childishly pleased with her blithely simple and happy marriage, with her wide-eyed hopefulness. We see Denise against the background Henry sees, against his churlish wife and sullen son. When tragedy strikes, we are angry with Olive’s pert chagrin where we expect sympathy. We are heartbroken with Henry instead. This sets up our relationship with Olive and despite her business-like good sense in Starving, we hold her pettiness against her daughter-in-law in In Small Bursts, and struggle to understand her relationship with the meek and mild Henry.
This book, like Lahiri’s, does not show us the world as it should be, but as it is. Life is not just made up of the big moments, but the little ones, the tiny pinpricks of sorrow that eat away at us, and the small bursts of joy that carry us through. Highly recommended.
*I just re-read the story “Nobody’s Business” from this collection of Lahiri’s. I remembered it as my favorite (excepting the final masterpiece) and when I came back from my jog on Saturday, I sat down to revisit it. Just as exquisite as I remembered, Paul watches Sang’s relationship with an emotionally distant man and accidentally gets tangled in it himself when he discovers an infidelity. It’s poignant and resolves the way life usually does, in a sad, quiet confusion. Beautiful.