For once we have an heroine who is old, rather ugly,directive and irascible, a formidable woman feared and admired in her little town of coastal Maine, not only because she taught math to almost everyone in town but also because she towered over them with her keen intelligence ,somewhat like Eleanor Roosevelt of yore, a downright feminist who speaks her mind and heaps contempt on incompetents and idiots . She is a character of Dickensian proportions,new to my mind in American letters.. The novel is funny and immensely entertaining at first , until the tragic elements appear in the fabric of her life in this idyllic little harbor town .
The ineffectual husband Henry, is a good guy who wants everybody to be happy , he is nice and gets along with all; the only son Christopher,depressive and neurotic ,is unable to shake the overwhelming maternal presence and leaves town ,after a shot gun wedding to a control freak of a woman ; then, retirement looms tough and barren, and there are no grand kids to be expected anywhere … So, what to do with one's remaining life ? Few writers tackle that pressing problem in advanced societies as our own, especially keen when one's life companion disappears.
The problem of old age and its desert felt as a non- future, is posed here nakedly , horribly and with no ready solution: Olive is not Phillip Roth , she is not a cute old sex pot and she is not an elegant rich lady of leisure à la" Anita Brookner"… Oh no, she is unable and unwilling to please, she is cynical and never held any illusions, but she is deep and feels things in her heart. She is bereft and feeling lonely, abandoned ,broken when Henry has a stroke and die, loneliness grips her . She finds no solace anywhere but in lonely walks in the morning cold, and her flowers in the garden, like so many widows.
Strout is a great and powerful writer , as Tolstoy was who depicts the travails of an old isolated person, with the efforts and failings inherent to this stage of life and its relative failure . It is the unlikely son Christopher with a new wife flanked by awful kids, who remakes the family and repairs the broken thread, Olive herself finds an improbable male companion lying , fainted on a country road and helps save him… Nothing heroic, nothing new ever happens to old people who see everything around them collapse inevitably.
See the courage it takes to survive! It is this very life itself that destroys the past,ruins are part of the voyage , but those who manage to survive must be extraordinary…If they continue to live on , it is an admirable feat and this author aims to describe it faithfully . Yes, Elizabeth Strout, a young woman herself, is able to write this remarkable , beautiful and unforgettable epic : the story of a full human life as it is. No frills.No luxury.