OLIVE KITTERIDGE, by Elizabeth Strout; Random House; 270 pages. $25
Olive Kitteridge teaches math in a small New England town. She has a husband, Henry, who is a pharmacist. She also has a son, Christopher, who is a teenager in the first story in this collection and who, over the course of the book, grows up and moves away.
Olive Kitteridge is a complicated person. She's impatient and too sharp-tongued, too often angry. But she is also deeply compassionate. Her husband is a bit afraid of her and so are her students. Her son doesn't call very often.
Elizabeth Strout has not made Olive the star of every story in this book. In almost every story, in fact, there are other characters more important. Yet Olive is a constant. Often she's the one who moves the action forward, who asks the right questions or holds up a mirror to let the main character see himself through new eyes.
Taken together, the short stories in "Olive Kitteridge" form a loose novel. They tell of the passions and fears of the people in one rural town.
The early stories, set when Olive is a mother and a teacher and a wife, are about endings. Ironically, the last story in the book, the story set in Olive's old age, is about hope. In between are stories about common things: a man stops loving his wife, a woman works as a pianist in a restaurant, a young man comes back to visit the town where his mother died.
The first story, "Pharmacy," tells of several years in the extremely ordinary life of a man who owns a drugstore. The years Strout describes are those in which Henry employs a young woman to help him in the shop. The young woman is not beautiful, not dramatic, just quietly competent. Henry finds himself enjoying her and her husband for not much more than that they are young and have so much life before them.
Strout writes of Henry, "The year that followed was it the happiest year of his own life? He often thought so, even knowing that such a thing was foolish to claim about any year of one's life; but in his memory, that particular year held the sweetness of a time that contained no thoughts of a beginning and no thoughts of an end, and when he drove to the pharmacy in the early morning darkness of winter, then later in the breaking light of spring, the full-throated summer opening before him, it was the small pleasures of his work that seemed in their simplicities to fill him to the brim."Strout's writing is pretty and laden with meaning. She won awards for her first books, "Amy and Isabelle" and "Abide With Me." These stories are even more poignant. Do not be surprised to find "Olive Kitteridge" on everyone's list of the best fiction of 2008.