This is a lovely collection and a depressing one. Strout is an excellent writer, with a great eye for nuance of character and feeling. But particularly in her short story collections, she seems drawn to quiet, deep sadness, to loneliness and unvoiced pain and marriages that fail their participants. This collection of linked stories – roughly every other story is about the title character, while the others focus on people she knows – features an older woman slowly losing her husband to medical problems, after they’ve lost and failed each other repeatedly over the years despite their love for one another. So expect a melancholy read.
But at the same time, it’s a great book. Strout is an expert crafter of characters, and I loved reading about the prickly, complex Olive. The stories about other people from her small town in Maine are also quite good, and allow the author a wider range for experimentation (I’m not sure I ever fully unpacked the subtly disturbing “Criminal”), though I would’ve appreciated getting some follow-up on these characters in the later entries. Especially at the beginning, I preferred the stories that covered a longer span of time (such as the phenomenal first story, “Pharmacy”) to the more compressed ones (“Incoming Tide” fell flat for me). Toward the end I was reading it more like a novel, and most interested in getting back to Olive rather than the one-off stories of other townspeople. At times I avoided reading it because it is so often sad, but it’s a great literary collection and one I could see myself returning to one day, there’s so much insight and humanity in it.
Also, the imaginative piece at the end, in which the publisher “interviews” Strout and Olive together, is creative and hilarious – definitely an achievement in supplementary material.