The book is the telling of one woman’s adult life, but told through other people’s lives around her as well as hers. Each chapter is its own contained story and many are a piece of someone else’s life, although in each chapter we find revealed a piece of Olive’s life as well. The larger emerging story is at times uncomfortable, as it looks at who we think we are versus how the world sees us, and the confusion that can arise from those two often very different realities. Yet, it is also a story of redemption and an honest portrayal of ordinary and extraordinary people. Some of the people reappear later in the story, others come and go in one chapter, having conveyed a small piece of a larger puzzle.
Harmon walked along, leaving his car at the marina, the air like a cold washcloth on his face. Each of his sons had been his favourite child.
Strout’s language creates a journey that feels understated, yet by the end I felt that I had read something profound. I consider that an amazing skill in a writer, to take me quietly into a story and leave me feeling changed.
He shook his head once, as though he had water in his ear that he was trying to shake out. After a moment he opened his mouth, then closed it. He turned to look at the water, and for a long time neither said anything. Earlier in their marriage, they’d had fights that had made Olive feel sick the way she felt now. But after a certain point in a marriage, you stopped having a certain kind of fight, Olive thought, because when the years behind you were more than the years in front of you, things were different. She felt the sun’s warmth on her arms, although down here under the hill by the water, the air held the hint of nippiness.
This book and its collection of stories could disturb some people, it may hit too close to home for some or not wrap up in a happy ending or what someone would see as a happy ending (I actually thought it was a sort of happy ending, or at least a content ending). I was surprised many times by the turn the story would take, but every time I realized it made sense, because this was so much like a real life, not like a storybook life. In the end we are not sure what Olive has learned, but we have learned a great deal about Olive, and about judging people. One can never, really, know why a person acts a certain way, and the things we have experienced in our lives colour how we perceive that person.
The story jumps in time as each narrative is a certain point in a character’s life, and it expects the reader to get the clues and details that place you in the right time. For me this added to the deceptive gentleness of the book.
Soft, with a backbone of steel.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.