Sunday, 18 July 2010

This is possibly the most inappropriate book cover I have ever seen and my guess is that Elizabeth Strout must have been spitting mad at her UK publisher.
Olive Kitteridge is a big-built, elderly maths teacher with a caustic tongue and she runs up baggy frocks for herself out of old curtains.
So why make out that she's this creamy-skinned young thing in a ballgown?
Why make a great Pulitzer-prize winning novel look like run-of-the-mill chicklit?
Oh, for God's sake, Olive Kitteridge would say. What in hell ails them? Luckily, when I found this in a charity shop a few days ago, it was an American edition, its cover bland but otherwise completely inoffensive.
So now I've got that off my chest ... I can say that Olive Kitteridge is the most powerfully-moving book that I've read in a long time. I loved Olive, who is mean and abrasive and brave and compassionate and perceptive and self-deluding; I can completely see that other readers might dislike her but that's partly what this book is about, the accommodations that we all have to make as we get through our lives. This is a novel told in linked short stories set in one small American town and sometimes Olive is at the centre of what is going on and sometimes she's on the sidelines; just as well, you might think, because there can't be many people able to take Olive full-on for too long at a stretch.
Her husband is a gentle man; she tongue-lashes him through their long marriage, tends him when he has a stroke and misses him like hell when he dies. She can't understand why her much-loved son is in therapy, why he never phones. Did he leave town because she was overly possessive? When she hit him as a boy - and Olive hits, she doesn't spank - did she sometimes go too far? You'll have to work it out for yourself ... there's lots of things in this novel that you'll have to work out for yourself.
'I'm starving, too,' Olive says brusquely to an anorexic girl who is starving herself to death:

"'I am,' Olive said. 'Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?'
'You're not starving,' Nina said with disgust.
'Sure I am. We all are.' "

There's so much loneliness and unhappiness here ... and so much humanity.
As for Olive ... she's so real to me that I can't quite believe that I'm not going to run into her next time I go shopping. Of course, I might cross the road if I see her coming.


Joan Hunter Dunn said...

You're so right about front covers. I shall now pick it up and I love books that are linked short stories.

mary said...

That cover is such a perverse choice, Joan! And - I might be imagining it - but I had a nagging feeling that I'd seen the same picture on another title recently. And it really baffles me why any publisher would do that!