Olive Kitteridge is the kind of woman you would duck across the street to avoid meeting. She’s abrasive as sandpaper rubbed across a scab and unapologetically rude. Now retired, she taught seventh-grade math in the small Maine town of Crosby for years, earning a reputation as the mean teacher who leaves her students flustered and trembling. She is loud, unnerving, tart-tongued, and completely unforgettable.
At some point, we’ve all had an Olive Kitteridge in our lives. Some of us might even be Olive Kitteridge, though our vanity prevents us from seeing it. It’s that kind of familiarity with the Olives of the world which makes Elizabeth Strout’s new work of fiction such a rich, absorbing reading experience. In Olive Kitteridge, we often bump into pieces of ourselves or people we’ve known. Just as she did in her previous two novels, Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me, Strout distills universal human behavior down to the miniature scale of one particular town and its residents.
Olive Kitteridge is labeled “a novel in stories;” but like Sherwood Anderson’s seminal collection Winesburg, Ohio, each of the 13 tales can stand on its own. Pull any of them out at random and you’ll have a snapshot of coastal New England life rendered in fine-grained detail. To get the full emotional impact of the book, however, it’s best to work through the entire mosaic from start to finish, as each story adds another layer to our understanding of what makes Olive tick. Collections of linked stories have been in vogue lately — including Rebecca Barry’s Later, at the Bar, Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, and Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing — and Olive Kitteridge ranks among the best of them.
Most, but not all, of the stories center around Olive, her kind-hearted husband, Henry, and their only child, Christopher. Even when other Crosby residents are the focus of the story, Olive can be found at the periphery, sometimes only making a cameo appearance, sometimes playing an integral role in the plot. Her presence is so strong that as we’re reading about Angie O’Meara, the lonely alcoholic who plays piano in the local cocktail lounge, we hold our breath waiting for Olive to walk through the door with Henry.
In her fiction, Strout has striven to be all-encompassing, struggling to pack too much sausage in the casing. Amy and Isabelle was nearly too wide-angled for its own good: embracing a mother-daughter relationship, teen pregnancy, spousal abuse, and child abduction in one big, sentimental hug. Olive Kitteridge is no less ambitious, and one of the book’s minor faults is the number of secondary characters who move in the background of Olive and Henry’s lives. By the halfway point, so many of them have piled up they start to become indistinct.
However, it’s the woman with the walnut-shell heart who holds the book together and keeps our attention riveted to the page. A tenth-generation New Englander, Olive keeps a tight rein on her vulnerabilities and expects others to do the same. To her genial, affable husband, she’s a cross he silently bears with a forgiving smile. To her son, she can be a tyrannizing terror — so much so, that as an adult Christopher can only break free of her maternal force-field by moving as far away as the continent will allow: to California.
When we first meet Olive in the opening story, “Pharmacy,” we’re immediately put off by her ill-temper. Here’s her volatile reaction when Henry says, “Is it too much to ask?a man’s wife accompanying him to church?”
“Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!” Olive had almost spit, her fury’s door flung open. “You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher’s homework with him! And you –” She had grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night’s disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. “You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!” Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. ” Well, I’m sick and tired of it,” she’d said, calmly. “Sick to death.”
It’s a bold move by Strout — to make us push away from Olive from the start — and to the author’s credit, she makes it her book-long task to bring us back to Olive, so that by the last story we feel sympathy, if not love, for this flawed character.
Physically, she cuts an imposing figure, moving through life like a battleship under full steam. In “A Little Burst,” Strout tells us:
Olive is a big person. She knows this about herself, but she wasn’t always big, and it still seems something to get used to. It’s true she has always been tall and frequently felt clumsy, but the business of being big showed up with age; her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seemed to become the size of a man’s. Olive minds — of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game, she is not about to abandon the comfort of food.
The stories follow her imposing figure from middle age to widowhood at 74, and we are present at several crucial turning points: at her son’s first marriage, to a girl Olive calls “mean and pushy”; when she intervenes in the life of one of her former students contemplating suicide; when Henry has a debilitating stroke in the parking lot of the Shop ‘n Save; and when she’s taken hostage, held at gunpoint by two drug addicts robbing a hospital pharmacy. It’s in this last situation, grippingly told in the story “A Different Road,” where we see the first cracks in Olive’s hard-shell fa?ade. Through her humiliation as a hostage, her soft insecurities start to show.
In the face of adversity, her simple philosophy has always been, “People manage.” Buffeted by circumstance, she finds this increasingly harder to do. Sitting in the nursing home with Henry after his stroke, she thinks, “A scared old woman, is what she is; all she knows these days is that when the sun goes down, it’s time to go to bed. People manage. She is not so sure. The tide is still out on that one, she thinks.”
In the book’s final story, “River,” Olive (now a widow) begins a relationship with a man whose wife has just died. By the time we reach this point in the book, we have been through so much with Olive that it’s a relief to see her finally grope toward something she might someday recognize as love — and if not “love,” then at least grudging affection. As Olive herself notes in the book’s closing lines, she is baffled by the world but does not feel ready to leave it just quite yet. Likewise, it’s just as hard for the reader to leave Olive after the last page is turned.