By Elizabeth Strout
288 pages. Random House.
"Don't be scared of your hunger," Olive Kitteridge always told her seventh-grade math students. "If you are scared of your hunger, you'll just be one more ninny like everyone else." Now Olive is retired, living out her life with her affable husband, Henry, in their small coastal town in Maine, and coming to understand that in spite of her efforts to subdue them, most hungers only intensify with age. Perceptive, deeply empathetic, and even more deeply flawed, Olive is the axis around which these 13 complex, relentlessly human narratives spin themselves into Elizabeth Strout's unforgettable novel in stories, Olive Kitteridge (Random House). "She didn't like to be alone," the narrator tells us shortly after a stroke confines Henry to a nursing home. "Even more, she didn't like being with people." This is the essence of Olive, contradictory, locked down tight, but capable of flights of emotion all the more heart-stoppingly beautiful because of their infrequency. As we meet the townspeople through her eyes—a young pharmacist widowed in a hunting accident, a feisty anorexic runaway, a family man building a boat too big to ever remove from his basement (to name only a few)—we feel acutely both the encroaching despair within Olive and the miraculous return of hope, "that inner churning that moves you forward," that "sudden, surging greediness for life."