Following on from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and The Sorrows of An American by Siri Hustvedt, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is my first experience with an author who I feel that I really should have read a long time ago, because the strength of her writing is quite astonishing.
Olive Kitteridge is a “novel in stories” one of my favourite genres and it brings to vivid life a small, provincial community on the coast of Maine. The stories here may be provincial in setting, but in scope, they are universal.
Some stories are quiet and some dramatic; most feature a betrayal of sorts but some are hopeful, occasionally romantic. A young man contemplates suicide while a lounge singer comes face to face with a lost love. There is a hostage taking at a hospital and the funeral reception of a man whose wife has just learned that he cheated on her.
The presence of Olive Kitteridge, a seventh-grade math teacher and the wife of Henry, the town’s pharmacist, links all these 13 stories. A large woman, overbearing and often rude, she is the cog at the centre of the novel’s wheel. Many of the stories are directly about Olive and her relationship with her husband and her son Christopher while in others she is a peripheral presence. It is interesting to note that the stories that are the strongest are those that feature Olive the most, cementing the understanding that she is a formidable and complex character.
Formidable and complex she may be, but at the start of the book, Olive simply is not nice. Even her son, who marries and moves state to get away from her says, ‘You can make people feel terrible’, but as the book continues, our understanding of Olive deepens.
She can be horrible, but she can also be kind, thoughtful and introspective. She may have a difficult relationship with her son, but it is clear that she loves him more than she can ever express. Her relationship with her husband, a kind man who clearly adores her, is complex and difficult, but when he needs her most, she does not let him down.
There were days – she could remember this – when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure.
Her compassion for strangers shines through, from a young man contemplating suicide, to a girl suffering from anorexia, and what we come to see is a woman with extreme empathy, but a clear-eyed empathy that is totally free of sentimentality. Olive sees the world as it is and she calls it so.
When the girl with anorexia questions how Olive could also be starving, her response cuts to the heart of the human condition.
“Sure I am. We all are.”
Olive Kitteridge understands life and she understands herself. She knows she has a bad temper and a tendency to ruin things. She knows that she pushes people away and she regrets this. She is aware that life is a series of moments, which should be cherished, but often are not until it is too late.
The structure of Olive Kitteridge is a beautiful balancing act. I was about a third of the way through before I realised that is was actually a book of short stories. Each story stands on its own providing moments of insight and clarity, but then read within the whole, they combine to create that deeper, complicated exploration of character and place you get in a novel. Also, by offering the reader different perspectives through different stories, Strout offers a wider, broader picture of the woman and the town in which she lives, exploring what people believe to be true of themselves and what they see in others. One of the most powerful moments, in a book filled with powerful moments, is when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law talking about her and realises just how she is being perceived.
It is a brave move to have such a strong character and to be willing to let her take a backseat in some stories, but with each new tale, Strout adds a little bit more to our perception of Olive, meaning that by the end, we come to care for this difficult woman.
She remembered was hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed.
Olive Kitteridge is a complex, moving and sometimes dark book, exploring self-awareness, loneliness and dependency. Like her titular character, Strout is clear-eyed and unsentimental. Life is hard, there is no point in pretending otherwise, but those moments of connection and revelation are what make it worth living.
It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!