Beautiful Life

If I could go back in time , I would tell my young self ‘BE PRESENT’ and that I should trust my instincts and have more convictions about my decisions. Life is what you make out of it. Looking back, I think my biggest drawback is I can be so indecisive about things that matter to me. You just get yourself swept into doing things and making plans that you really do not want to spend your time on. Often choices are made and they may not have been made by you.

You must learn to say NO to things. Much of our lives is so constrained by unwritten rules. Mostly we do things out of duty and obligations, and we are conditioned to fulfil certain familiar and societal expectations that we do not know if we agree with. Whatever happens, I have to remind myself not to take anything too seriously.

Life is many things, you just have to figure it out yourself.  

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans – John Lennon

Last month I finally read two novels by Elizabeth Strout. In the past , I have had a couple of false starts with Olive Kitteridge. It is a novel-in-stories. Strout has created the iconic character, Olive who is cantankerous and complex. Olive is a retired school teacher in Crosby, a small coastal town in Maine. She does not like people but she does not like to be alone. Seen by some as overbearing and apathetic and others as compassionate as she sees into the hearts of others, discerning their triumphs and tragedies. She is married to Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist who is stoic and cheerful when interacting with people but inwardly, he suffers ‘ the quiet trepidations of a man who had witnessed twice in childhood the nervous breakdowns of a mother who had otherwise cared for him with stridency.’ He feels the need to keep everyone content. He goes to church every Sunday while his wife does not. Olive has become an unapologetic atheist. Their son Christopher feels tyrannized by Olive’s overbearing sensitivities.

As Olive grows older, she struggles to make sense of the changes in her life. Through the narratives in thirteen short stories, her story emerges. In one of the stories, Olive and Henry are held hostages in a hospital.Two drug addicts charge into the hospital out of desperation. After that night, things are never the same for them and for they have said some horrible things to each other that would alter how they see each other. Words said can never  be taken back.

Strout’s prose is awesome. Here are some excerpts:

Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.’

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.

People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it.

Elizabeth Strout was awarded the Pulitzer prize for Olive Kitteridge. Here are notes by elizabeth-strout about the novel. An insightful read indeed.

The author has written a sequel entitled Olive, Again. It is also a novel-in-stories and can be read as standalone. I would like to read it soon.

In Oh William!, Lucy Barton is a successful novelist living in New York.From her apartment, she can see the Empire State Building. She is sixty-three years old and her ex-husband, William Gerdhart is sixty-nine years old. She was in Sophomore year when she met William, a graduate student who was teaching assistant for her biology class. They were married for twenty years before she asked for a divorce. They had two daughters, Chrissy and Becka. Despite their divorce, Lucy and William, have remained connected. She subsequently married David Abramson with whom she was happy. William had two marriages after the divorce. When David is sick and dies, it is William whom Lucy calls upon for help. When his third wife leaves him, William is lost and seeks help from Lucy.

William is a parasitologist  who teaches microbiology at New York University. When he retires from teaching, he realizes he had felt trepidation every time he stood before the class. After he has retired, he still goes to the university and continues to do research and delivers papers at conferences.

When Lucy was growing up, her parents had been unloving and abusive both physically and emotionally.  She grew up in  extreme poverty in the middle of a soybean field in Illinois. She  had grown up with a sense of  inescapable isolation.  She was the only one of her three siblings to thrive at school, go to college and enter middle class life. Despite having become a renowned author, Lucy feels invisible and insecure due to her childhood trauma. William is the only home she feels she had.

William’s mother, Catherine is a large presence in their marriage. Catherine ran away from her first marriage to a potato farmer to marry William’s dad who was a prisoner of war. Unlike Lucy who is haunted by her impoverished and unloved childhood, Catherine has successfully removed traces of her poverty-stricken childhood and establishes herself as a middle class despite her origins. When William’s third wife, Estelle gifts him a subscription to the ancestry website, he gets onto the website and uncovers things about Catherine. At age seventy-one, he discovers that he has a half-sister. He invites the newly widowed Lucy to make a trip to Maine to look for his half-sister. So Lucy is both surprised and not surprised whenWilliam asks her to join him on a trip to investigate a newly uncovered family secret.

Oh William! is the sequel to the author’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton. Elizabeth Strout‘s prose is elegant.

When Lucy mourns her husband’s passing, this is how the author describes grief.

Grief is such a -oh, it is such a solitary thing, this is the terror of it, I think.’

To her, William is a mystery. The author ends the story with the following passage :

But when I think Oh William! , don’t I mean Oh Lucy! too?

Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wife world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves.

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do. But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true. ‘

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

I totally relate to the passage, It is well said indeed.

Elizabeth Strout is best at describing her main character’s innermost thoughts and nuances of their feelings. Oh William is the sequel to the author’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton but it can be read as a stand-alone. Excellent prose.


2 thoughts on “Beautiful Life

  1. As a short story writer, I can appreciate the complexity and depth that Elizabeth Strout brings to her characters in Olive Kitteridge and Oh William!. It’s clear that Strout has a knack for capturing the nuances of human relationships and the challenges we face as we navigate life’s ups and downs. The way she weaves together different perspectives and experiences in these novel-in-stories is truly impressive, and I’m definitely interested in checking out her sequel, Olive, Again.


    1. Hi Sebastian, Thank you for your comment. Yes Elizabeth Strout’s fictional characters feel so real and she is certainly adept at describing human conflicts,

      Liked by 1 person

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