The interconnected stories in Elizabeth Strout's new book, Olive Kitteridge, follow small-town Maine folk, particularly the stolid, blunt schoolteacher of the title and her husband, Henry, the amiable local druggist. The tales meander with them through the years, weathering their attractions to other people; the adolescence and marriage of their son, Christopher; and finally Henry's illness.
Sometimes the couple are at the center of the action; at other times, they hover on the fringes. Strout, thrifty as any Down Easter, conveys their marriage in the sparest language possible. When Henry wants to invite Denise, his young employee, for dinner, Olive tells him, ''Not keen on it.'' But when he does so anyway he has a crush on her the tenuousness of their marriage surfaces in this exchange: ''For dessert they were each handed a blue bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sliding in its center. 'Vanilla's my favorite,' Denise said. 'Is it,' said Olive. 'Mine, too,' Henry Kitteridge said.''
Through all her passive aggression, Olive emerges as an opinionated and often sad woman who imagines her own depression as ''a thing inside me...sometimes it swells up like the head of a squid and shoots blackness through me.'' Her father committed suicide, and now Christopher suffers the same dark moodiness. The scene at his wedding, when Olive overhears the bride and her mother denigrating her dress, just might break your heart. Rarely does a story collection pack such a gutsy emotional punch. A