I begin with a quote from the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge: Fiction by Elizabeth Strout:

“…then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life…She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed.”

Restoring hope is crucial for couples who fear they’ve lost their way, for an individual with profound grief who’s lost the most important person in their life, or someone who experiences panic attacks for the first time and feels overwhelmingly out-of-control or for all of us who suffer from the loneliness that’s part of the human condition. Olive Kitteridge: Fiction is a luminous novel that captures the very nature of what it means to be human. The author’s wisdom about regrets, anger, guilt, wounded souls and the weariness and hardships of life are worth re-reading several times. Six of the interwoven stories were published previously from 1992-2007. This book was worth the wait because there is a layering of characters that has a depth developed with the gift of time.

There are two sides of hope which Olive is keenly aware of. Hope is crucial to endure hardship. Also hope is often disappointment delayed (as Carl Whitaker family therapist used to say). Olive is not one to be surprised by disappointment and she lives her life expecting it’s daily arrival.

Like all difficult people Olive has her strengths. She can recognize her own hard truths; “My son hates me, too.” or ” She hated the scared part of herself.” Her honesty combined with her meanness create an unforgettable three dimensional character. This is a book where the truth of it grabs you and brings tears to your eyes. I re-read the last five pages at least five times. It is a book rich in capturing both the gratitude and struggle of life and asks you not to “squander” your days on this earth. Olive’s learning’s about her mistakes become etched in our memories as if they are our own.

Her loneliness is palpable. There aren’t enough books that capture the profound nature of loneliness which is such a huge part of so many people’s lives. We are so selfishly unaware in America that we don’t take time to introduce single people to each other, whatever their age. When a couple loses respect for each other, and disdain begins to crumble their alliance, it can be a terribly lonely place. Ultimately, Olive pays that price because her yawning mouth of hunger and needs obscures seeing the good man beside her and recognizing who her son really is.  The author knows the truth, that couples who don’t respect each other are on the lonelyolive-kitteridge path to life without sex. Olive Kitteridge boils the terror of loneliness down to it’s essence. She represents some of our worst fears for ourselves and she is redeemed by hope to embrace life yet again.

So much that is popular lacks substance. Elizabeth Strout has taken her time to write a remarkable book jammed full of substance. Her writing is elegant. She is brilliant because she asks you to consider what is lyrical about life while acknowledging the hardships. It is one of the top three books of my life.

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About the Rhoda Mills Sommer

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