Review by Tom Keech
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Olive’s outlook on life is so dark she spreads unhappiness wherever she goes. Her husband brings her flowers and embraces her, but she only “waits for the hug to end.” She doesn’t like to be alone. “Even more, she doesn’t like being with people.” She’s concerned that her exercise regimen might “make her life longer.” She visits an acquaintance “hoping to feel better by knowing the woman suffered.” She is “lightened in spirit” to learn of her ancestors’ history of “scalpings, freezing winters with no food, barns burning from a lightning flash, children dying left and right.” She hates both her son’s wives whenever they show the slightest bit of affection for him. She steals one of her daughter-in-law’s shoes and a bra and marks up one of her sweaters at the wedding reception. She hit her son when he was young. “Not just spanked. Hit.” Reading about her life, you feel that her poor, longsuffering husband would be better off dead. So does she. “You can die now, Henry. Go ahead.”
Olive’s vision is so relentlessly dark that the reader barely gets a glimpse of the apparently beautiful New England seacoast town where she lives. There are some other stories about townspeople thrown in, but every one of them exemplifies lost hope, unfulfilled longings, pathetic and doomed attempts to reach for a spark of life or a moment of joy. Olive has apparently infected the whole town with permanent gloom.
A personality disorder is a deep-seated, long-lasting, inflexible pattern of deleterious behavior. Olive clearly suffers from a personality disorder, and the book’s portrayal of it may be clinically accurate. But it makes for an awful read.