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A prickly protagonist with a tender heart

A collection of short stories set in a coastal Maine town.

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As heroines go, Olive Kitteridge is about as far away from a Disney princess as Maine is from Florida. Before her retirement, the gruff 60-something was “the seventh-grade math teacher that kids were scared of.” And the years haven’t exactly mellowed her. “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology,” a former co-worker thinks. (Imagine that Miss Viola Swamp, the witchy substitute teacher from the children’s classic “Miss Nelson is Missing,” moved to rural Maine and got married.)

And yet, as she stumps her way through Elizabeth Strout’s translucent new “novel in stories,” Olive Kitteridge, she’s absolutely beautiful.

Maisy Mills, Maine, a small coastal community, is the kind of town where to make good, children have to move away. “Town is the church, and the grange hall, and the grocery store, and these days the grocery store could use a coat of paint.” Strout (author of “Amy and Isabelle”) creates a melancholy world where parents pine for their grown children, spouses grieve in marriages grown cold with misunderstanding, and yet where hope, humor, and a kind of quiet endurance remain.

Olive and her gentle husband, Henry, appear in almost every story, though sometimes just glimpsed from a distance. For example, in “The Piano Player,” they just pass through someone else’s heartbreak, on their way to dinner.

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