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Short stories add to characters' depth


April 21, 2010

Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout

(Random House)

This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is composed of a series of short stories about the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine, where Olive Kitteridge is retired from her position as a much-feared mathematics teacher in the local school.

As in her previous novels, Elizabeth Strout sketches each of her characters with sufficient detail and personality to let them take up solid space in the current story, even if they're never referred to again. She draws the title character as overbearing and blunt. But with each new reference by an inhabitant to Olive or Mrs. Kitteridge, Strout's brush adds more color, more depth, more layers to her persona.

As she meanders throughout the text like a play's seamstress stitching the lines into a finished script, each actor's minor role taking on particular relevance in the total scheme, we see a difference in Olive's substance. It is as she's on her first airplane flight, invited to meet her son's new wife, that we can appreciate her revelation as she describes "hope" as "That inner churning that moves you forward..."

The author offers some memorable insights from her characters. Perhaps they matter in the storyline, or they may be worthy of discussion among friends. In the story about two sisters, where our concern lies with Julie, their father is building a boat in his cellar. He has carefully done mathematical measurements and considered how he would get it out when it is completed ... "But I'm beginning to wonder," he said.

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