“I have such an ambivalent relationship to Maine,” Elizabeth Strout says, although her novels are all about life in her home state. She grew up in Harpswell, a small coastal town in Maine, and in Durham, N.H., but for the last 20 years, she's lived in New York City. She also admits to frustrations with the way outsiders sometimes view the people in Maine: “I remember the New Yorkers that came on vacation when I was a kid. One time, this couple took one look at me, decided I was 'cute'—I had on little overalls or something—and asked me to pose on the front steps for a picture. What did I know? Well, my mother was furious when she found out.”
Strout has spent her life trying to reconcile her feelings, and trying to understand what Maine means to real “Mainers”—her own family arrived in 1603—and to those who know it as a place to spend the summer. “When people in New York say things like, 'I love Maine, Maine is so beautiful,' I want to say, 'You don't know anything about Maine.' It's a very rough life.”
Mining her ambivalence, Strout has written two novels—the bestselling Amy and Isabelle (Random House, 1998) and Abide with Me (Random, 2006)—both of which explore those rough lives, the claustrophobia of small towns and the encroachments of the world beyond Maine. Her new book, a novel-in-stories called Olive Kitteridge (Random House), actually leaves Maine, but only briefly.
Strout is 50 now, and her journey back home was full of detours. After graduating from Syracuse Law School in 1982, she moved to New York and married one of her classmates (they recently separated), with whom she had a daughter in 1983. She practiced law briefly and hated it, then dedicated herself to writing, teaching in the mornings as an adjunct at Manhattan Community College for the next 12 years while raising her daughter. The payoff came when she was almost 40 and her debut, Amy and Isabelle, was published, making Strout a sudden success. That novel is about a mother and her teenage daughter living in the coastal town of Shirley Falls, Maine, where the daughter becomes infatuated with an inappropriately encouraging high school teacher. “I had to finally acknowledge that I needed to write about Maine,” Strout says. “I was very anxious to move away from Maine. It was only well into my adult life that I began to learn just how 'from Maine' I was.” It took something very New York to convince her: she took a stand-up comedy class, and found herself, she says, “making a lot of jokes about coming from Maine, and that's when I realized, 'Oh, it is my identity.' ”
Her new book is about a quintessential Maine character, Olive Kitteridge, a retired high school math teacher in Crosby, Maine. Olive is stubborn, impatient, fierce, sometimes even cruel, but also fiercely loving, especially to her almost too-sweet husband, local pharmacist Henry, and her bitter son, Christopher, who leaves Maine at the behest of a pushy new wife and breaks Olive's heart. The 13 linked stories that make up Olive Kitteridge trace several decades in the lives of its titular character and the other residents of the town.
Many of the stories place Olive center-stage: as Henry tries to understand his feelings for his young assistant at his pharmacy; as Olive and Henry suffer through their son's ill-fated wedding; as Olive visits a vegetative, post-stroke Henry in a nursing home; as Christopher stumbles through another marriage in a large and—at least to Olive—overwhelming New York. Olive makes cameos in the other stories, passing through the bar where a lonely pianist plays nights and awaits her married lover; ministering to a teen with an eating disorder; and stopping a former student from killing himself. As Strout shows us Crosby bit by bit, Olive ultimately becomes a testament to the risks and rewards of old-fashioned self-reliance—her rigid personality allows her to withstand immeasurable losses, but leaves her lonelier than most.
The book Strout is working on now is as much about New York as it is about Maine. The story follows New York lawyers working with the community of Somali refugees relocated to Lewiston, Maine, the depressed industrial town that is also home to Bates College, Strout's alma mater. The action takes place in both cities, which may be as close to her real home as Strout can get: someplace between Maine and New York, a bit of both and neither—or, as Strout puts it, “on both sides.”