Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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First off how good is the minimalist cover of Olive Kitteridge? I really thought I got lucky with this edition not just because I love lighthouses.

I have been delaying talking about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge because I read it within a month of my grandfather’s death. Saying we were very close would be an understatement. At first the book hurt terribly. I thought I knew heartbreak and then life decides to say ha let me show you how you wrong you are! Initially, you want to escape the pain not experience it more deeply. But then the latter is more cathartic in the long run, and you start to heal when you realize this is the way of the world. We are all connected by loss, love and longing.

I was astounded by Elizabeth Strout’s writing. There’s a kind of gentleness about the everyday life she writes about. It is never banal. I never thought everyday life could be written about so poignantly and have such an immediacy to it. Ordinary people, everyday entanglements and normal lives in the hands of a gifted writer makes for a compelling narrative.

Henry Kitteridge, the husband of Olive Kitteridge, reminded me of my grandfather – kind and affable, never wanting to make a fuss and trying his best to be in harmony with what is.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Olive Kitteridge is the portrait of a long marriage and of an only child’s failed relationship with his parents. It is learning that marriage cannot alleviate your loneliness completely even though you are bound together for life. It is about the deterioration and fatigue that sets in old age. It is about finding companionship when you least expect it. It is about tender unexpected love that has no name but which gushes forth without caring if it’s appropriate. It is a deep yearning to be connected yet unable to bridge the gap.

It is about the truth and being straightforward being the kinder way in some cases. It is about the meek and submissive becoming vile when it is they who wield the power.

It is about small things, things of no apparent consequence and almost invisible to others, having the capacity to cause such tremendous heartbreak that it takes you by surprise.

It is about compassion lurking under battle hardened hearts and letting go of judgement, living with everything as is. It is being true to yourself above all because in the end when Death is coming for you, that’s all that matters.

Olive Kitteridge showed me all that and more. I could identify with many things. Things I didn’t know I felt, things I suppressed because they weren’t important in the scheme of day to day living. And there were things I could foresee myself identifying with in the future. When a book does that you know it’s a keeper.

Continue reading “Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout”

Andrea Barrett’s The English Pupil

Time flies. Staying at home for extended periods of time when I was unwell I could feel the passage of seasons, days going by excruciatingly slow, each day with its own set of struggles and now I cannot believe such a large chunk of time has passed. The descent of time?

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett is a collection of short stories I wanted to reread as soon as I finished the book, and it has taken me nearly two years to do it. I bought The Voyage of Narwhal immediately after finishing it, and recently The Air We Breathe has come into my possession but I still haven’t read them. What am I scared of  – her not meeting my exceeded expectations or idiotically trying to collect all her other books (very hard to find in India) while not reading the ones I do have. Life is too short to wait for a complete collection. You read along and hope for the best.

In The English Pupil, Carolus Linnaeus is nostalgic for the past and remembers his apostles (read pupils), who went about the world carrying forward his legacy, sending him specimens and discovering new species. All of his apostles are dead now, and he’s inching closer towards his own.

Linnaeus and his wife remind me of an old couple, who are in the autumn of their lives and are not at peace with it or with each other. (What is the point of companionship then?) His wife doesn’t care about his work or his legacy. His work fulfilled him but didn’t make him rich. The family’s demands weren’t being met and to her that was what mattered the most. She was the pragmatic sort. A dreamer has to be paired with a realist. It is a question of survival, you see. Continue reading “Andrea Barrett’s The English Pupil”

Finding Violet Park again

I finished reading Finding Violet Park a couple of days ago and I am still thinking about it, which is always a good sign because my memory isn’t as reliable as it is used to be. I think the cover is brilliant (much better than the photograph I have taken) and when I first got the book, I thought someone had actually doodled all over it. I remember thinking I liked it and at the same time wondered how could they sell such a book, even if it is second hand, until I read the blurb. Silly me.
I knew the book as Me, the Missing and the Dead (but I must confess I like the title Finding Violet Park better because it is a title that doesn’t give anything away) as it was released in America. It’s a title I was familiar with since 2010, when I had read Broken Soup (Jenny Valentine’s second book), having noticed it in Pantaloons (when it still housed books) perhaps because it stood out due to its unusual cover.

After reading Broken Soup, I came to know that her first book, Finding Violet Park, won the Guardian children’s fiction prize and I wanted to read it (the stunning cover was the actual reason). Then university happened and I forgot all about it. Recently I saw it on a used book site (thank you Bookchor) and it all came back to me. Jenny Valentine felt like a nom de plume to me but it is indeed her real name (she married her Valentine).

It is odd coming back to an author whose work I had read when I wasn’t as much of a cynic and sullied by the world as I’m now. While reading I felt as if I was reconciling the present and past versions of me, which is weird because it is the first time I am reading this book but my mind associates Finding Violet Park with an earlier time, a pre-university era.

I read a major chunk of the book while awaiting my turn in a long line (which twisted and turned in ways unimaginable) of people waiting for their turn at the registration counter at a hospital. And if my nose wasn’t buried in the book, the two hour wait in the line moving slower than a snail, which ultimately turned out to be for nothing, would have been maddening. If there is anything I have learnt all these years, it is this – Never leave the house without a book.

The book deals with how Lucas, a 16 year old and his family – mother, sister, brother and grandparents, cope after his father goes missing (read ghosting in real life). It’s a book where death has a strong presence since the other lead character Violet Park, is in a urn (as in already dead). Their paths crisscross and what happens then forms the rest of the narrative.

Lucas has been forced to grow up before he hit his teens and never got the chance to be a normal teenager. He is a bit of an oddball and strange for his age but  that is what growing up too early does to you. He talks to himself often. I get you. I really do. When others don’t understand the only option left is oneself. He idolizes his father, who vanished without a trace, leaving behind his pregnant wife, two children and ageing parents. And this breaks my heart because I know the truth won’t be pretty.

Lucas conjures up out of the world scenarios for his father’s disappearance, never believing him to be dead. He believes that one fine day he will be back in their lives. He is unable to face facts or refuses to do so because the world he has so carefully constructed would then crumble and, he would be left with nothing but a gaping hole, where life as he knew it used to be.

Pete, Lucas’s dad, was absent from their lives but is present throughout the book. Lucas was the worst affected by his absence and could not let go of him even as time passed and there was no hope of his returning home. His mom let him be a walking shrine to his dad, thinking it to be a way he could cope with the disappearance though it made moving on very difficult  for others.

Though published by Harper Children in 2007 this is not a children’s book but would belong in the category YA (young adult). The writing is simple but the themes are complex but then YA books have never been traditional and that is what I like about them. Some people think YA books are rubbish and precocious, and isn’t worth the hype. Read the book for the most unexpected pair of protagonists, if not for the themes it addresses – death, alienation, loneliness, assisted suicide, dissolution of a marriage and growing up in a broken family, trials of old age and ravages of dementia all without ever getting heavy handed.

The book is equal parts funny, tender and sad and hopeful though not all at once. And the ending will leave you gobsmacked. I suggest you get your hands on a copy, if YA floats your boat.

It occurs to me all that most people do when they grow up is fix on something impossible and hunger after it.
 I can’t believe how people turn themselves in circles and repeat the mistakes that screwed them over in the first place.
It’s funny when you start thinking about pivotal moments like this in your life, chance happenings that end up meaning everything.
 Maybe Pansy saw him the way I wanted to, half blind, without the cruel light of actual knowledge.
I don’t know if I said it right or not when I said it to Bob. It’s much easier saying everything you want to say when you are the only one that is listening.
…I was thinking how ironic it was, how unfair that I’d been mad for so long at the person who stuck around instead of the one who abandoned me.
 It’s what you do when you grow up, apparently, face up to things you’d rather not and accept the fact that nobody is who you thought they were, maybe not even close.