‘The Piano Player’ by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is not strictly a short story collection, but rather a novel with carefully drawn vignettes of different lives lived in a small fictional community in Crosby on the coast of Maine, a quintessentially New England town. Uniting them all is the formidable figure of Olive Kitteridge, a school math teacher and the wife of a pharmacist. A larger-than-life character, she is at the centre of several stories and peripheral in others. 

In ‘The Piano Player,’ Olive and her husband are peripheral to the central story, which is about Angela O’Meara, a piano player in a local cocktail lounge. She has a faded beauty about her and a drink problem. Strout has a cinematic way of describing the setting and the characters. She paints a wonderful visual portrait that distils the spirit of the place and the person. The Bar with its “sprawl of couches, plump leather chairs, and low tables… where the piano was not so much ‘background’ music as it was a character in the room.” Angela’s “jawline is gone soft and uneven, and the wrinkles near her eyes were quite pronounced. But they were kind wrinkles; nothing harsh-it seemed had happened to this face.” And yet the reader knows that Angela has lost her way in life because of a doomed love affair. She is a nervous pianist, aware of her audience and uses vodka to calm her nerves. Angela plays without a break in order to avoid making small talk and arrives at work on a Friday night about a week before Christmas smelling of alcohol and mint. Angie recognizes a man sitting in the corner, and his presence opens up painful memories about her past.

As a writer, I am interested in the quiet dramas that can throw an ‘ordinary’ life off kilter, one wrong decision or choice that can alter the entire landscape of a life. In this story, Strout subtly reveals the loneliness, the heartbreak and the disappointments that lurks beneath Angela’s suburban gentility and bravado. One moment we are in the cocktail bar listening to Angela, playing a request from her former lover, the next moment we are inside her head, reliving her anguish at meeting him after a break of so many years. 

She knows that loneliness can kill people – in different ways can actually make you die.

First published in Olive Kitteridge, Random House, 2008. It is also an HBO TV Mini-series starring Francis McDormand in the title role

‘River’ by Elizabeth Strout

We all surely know and love Olive Kitteridge and I think about this story, or chapter if you prefer to see it that way, so much. Olive is living alone after the death of her husband, and falling in love again, when she least expects to. I guess in a way, the beauty of this story comes from knowing Olive in all the stories-in-chapters before; it is so unlikely for her to feel this way, and yet here she is; changed, finally softened somehow. I find some of the last few passages just beautiful:

His blue eyes were watching her now; she saw in them the vulnerability, the invitation, the fear, as she sat down quietly, placed her open hand on his chest, felt the thump thump of his heart, which would someday stop, as all hearts do. But there was no someday now, there was only the silence of this sunny room.

First published as part of Olive Kitteridge, Scribner, 2008