Olive Kitteridge

Overview

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE ? SOON TO BE AN HBO MINISERIES

In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge.

At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant...

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Olive Kitteridge: Fiction

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Overview

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • SOON TO BE AN HBO MINISERIES

In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge.

At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance: a former student who has lost the will to live: Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

2009 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction Winner!

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF 2008 BY:

People
USA Today
The Atlantic
The Washington Post Book World
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Entertainment Weekly
The Christian Science Monitor
San Francisco Chronicle
Salon
San Antonio Express-News
Chicago Tribune
The Wall Street Journal

Louisa Thomas
Strout's previous novels, Abide With Me and Amy and Isabelle, were also set in New England and explored similar themes: family dynamics, small-town gossip, grief. Those books were good; this one is better. It manages to combine the sustained, messy investigation of the novel with the flashing insight of the short story. By its very structure, sliding in and out of different tales and different perspectives, it illuminates both what people understand about others and what they understand about themselves.
—The New York Times
The New Yorker
The whitecaps in the harbor, some familiar piano chords, the doughnut a man brings to his wife after visiting his lover—Strout animates the ordinary with an astonishing force. These linked stories introduce the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine, where the pull of domestic tragedy is stronger for rarely being spoken of. Angela doesn’t mention the bruises she’s noticed on her mother’s arm at the nursing home; Marlene learns of her husband’s infidelity only after his funeral; Kevin plans to shoot himself, like his mother before him. And there in every story, like a tree that’s been blackened by lightning but still leafs in the spring, stands Olive Kitteridge, a retired math teacher who loves her tulips, bullies her husband, and barks at anyone foolish enough to irritate her. You loathe this woman at the book’s beginning; you long for her at its finish. Strout makes us experience not only the terrors of change but also the terrifying hope that change can bring: she plunges us into these churning waters and we come up gasping for air.
Molly Gloss
There are glimmers of warmth, of human connection, in even the darkest of these stories. Strout's benevolence toward her characters forms a slender bridge between heartbreak and hope, a dimly glimpsed path through minefields of despair. The stifled sorrows she writes of here are as real as our own, and as tenderly, compassionately understood.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Strout's tale of an aging schoolteacher too obsessed with the deterioration of her little town of Crosby, Maine, to realize the problems plaguing her own life, is read with vigor by Sandra Burr. Burr's reading makes Strout's characters rich and wonderful in every way, bringing a well-rounded originality to each one. As Olive, Burr's voice slips into a nagging, aged groan that seems perfectly suited for the central character's downtrodden personality. As Olive's husband, Henry, Burr is understated yet powerful. She understands this poignant tale so entirely that her reading becomes reality for the listener. There is a certain melancholy that infects this story, and Burr is poised to capture and relate it to her audience. Simultaneous release with the Random House hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 10).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In her third novel, New York Times best-selling author Strout (Abide with Me ) tracks Olive Kitteridge's adult life through 13 linked stories. Olive-a wife, mother, and retired teacher-lives in the small coastal town of Crosby, ME. A large, hulking woman with a relentlessly unpleasant personality, Olive intimidates generations of community members with her quick, cruel condemnations of those around her-including her gentle, optimistic, and devoted husband, Henry, and her son, Christopher, who, as an adult, flees the suffocating vortex of his mother's displeasure. Strout offers a fair amount of relief from Olive's mean cloud in her treatment of the lives of the other townsfolk. With the deft, piercing shorthand that is her short story-telling trademark, she takes readers below the surface of deceptive small-town ordinariness to expose the human condition in all its suffering and sadness. Even when Olive is kept in the background of some of the tales, her influence is apparent. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether it's worth the ride to the last few pages to witness Olive's slide into something resembling insight. For larger libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/07.]-Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The abrasive, vulnerable title character sometimes stands center stage, sometimes plays a supporting role in these 13 sharply observed dramas of small-town life from Strout (Abide with Me, 2006, etc.). Olive Kitteridge certainly makes a formidable contrast with her gentle, quietly cheerful husband Henry from the moment we meet them both in "Pharmacy," which introduces us to several other denizens of Crosby, Maine. Though she was a math teacher before she and Henry retired, she's not exactly patient with shy young people-or anyone else. Yet she brusquely comforts suicidal Kevin Coulson in "Incoming Tide" with the news that her father, like Kevin's mother, killed himself. And she does her best to help anorexic Nina in "Starving," though Olive knows that the troubled girl is not the only person in Crosby hungry for love. Children disappoint, spouses are unfaithful and almost everyone is lonely at least some of the time in Strout's rueful tales. The Kitteridges' son Christopher marries, moves to California and divorces, but he doesn't come home to the house his parents built for him, causing deep resentments to fester around the borders of Olive's carefully tended garden. Tensions simmer in all the families here; even the genuinely loving couple in "Winter Concert" has a painful betrayal in its past. References to Iraq and 9/11 provide a somber context, but the real dangers here are personal: aging, the loss of love, the imminence of death. Nonetheless, Strout's sensitive insights and luminous prose affirm life's pleasures, as elderly, widowed Olive thinks, "It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet."A perfectly balanced portrait of the human condition, encompassing plentyof anger, cruelty and loss without ever losing sight of the equally powerful presences of tenderness, shared pursuits and lifelong loyalty.
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 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. --David Abrams

David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812987638
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2014
  • Edition description: Movie Tie-in
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 122,254
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.95 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth  Strout

Elizabeth Strout is the author of Abide with Me, a national bestseller and Book Sense pick, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is on the faculty of the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and lives in New York City.

Biography

With the kind of reception that Elizabeth Strout's debut novel Amy and Isabelle received, one might have expected her to rush right back to her writing desk to author a follow-up while the proverbial iron was still hot. However, that is not the way that Strout works. "I wish tremendously that I was faster about all this," she recently told Bookpage.com. "But, you know, it didn't turn out to be that way." It ultimately took her about seven years to write Abide with Me, her sophomore effort, and the amount of time she put into crafting the novel is apparent on every page.

The multitudinous hours that went into writing Abide with Me are not anything new to Elizabeth Strout. She took any equally measured number of years to writer her debut, which she developed out of a short story. "It took me around three years to ‘clear my throat' for this book," she told Bookreporter.com at the time of the release of Amy and Isabelle. "During much of that time Amy and Isabelle remained a story. Once I got down to actually writing it as a novel it took another six or seven years." However, the pay off for the time she spent writing this humorous, expertly rendered tale of the troubled relationship between a mother and her daughter was substantial. Amy and Isabelle received nearly unanimous praise, lauded by Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time Magazine, People Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, to name just a few. The novel also nabbed nominations for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and was the subject of a 2001 made-for-television movie starring Elizabeth Shue.

So, what kept Strout from completing her second novel sooner? Perhaps it was her unorthodox writing methods. "I try to get in three or four hours (of writing per day)," she explains, "and I put off having lunch for as long as I can because having lunch seems to change the energy flow. If I'm lucky, I'll get through till one o'clock. And then I throw everything out. And that's a morning's work."

While Strout may be indulging in a little good-natured, comical leg-pulling, she did not write Abide with Me to elicit giggles from her readers. This somber piece introduces Tyler Caskey, a minister in a small New England community whose mounting personal doubts following a tragedy cause the community that he serves to develop their own doubts about his ability to guide them spiritually.

While Abide with Me stands in contrast to the comparatively humorous Amy and Isabelle, it was not Strout's intention to render a serious exploration of theology or religion. She views the book as more of a character study. "It is the story of a minister," she explains. "I was interested in writing about a religious man who is genuine in his religiosity and who gets confronted with such sadness so abruptly that he loses himself. Not his faith, but his faith in himself."

With the admiration already pouring in for Abide with Me, Strout may very well have another bestseller on her hands. Publishers Weekly has called this striking novel "a harrowing meditation of exile on Main Street," while Booklist suggested that "Readers who enjoyed...Amy and Isabelle... will find much to move them in this tale of a man trying to get past his grief amid a town full of colorful people with their own secrets and heartaches."

Such praise may be of little interest to Strout, who once told Bookreporter.com, "When I finish a piece, I put it behind me and look to my future work." But considering her leisurely work methods, it may be several years before her readers get their hands on her any of her future work -- not that Strout needs to worry about whether or not her fans will forget her. As long as she continues producing work as rich and compelling as Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me, she can take all the time she needs.

Update:
In 2009 Strout was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge, a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine.

Good To Know

Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Strout:

"My first job was when I was about 12, cleaning houses in the afternoons for different elderly women in town. I hated it. I would be so bored scrubbing at some kitchen tile, that my mind would finally float all over the place, to the beach, to a friend's house...all this happened in my mind as I scrubbed those tiles, so it was certainly good for my imagination. But I did hate it."

"Without a doubt my mother was an inspiration for my writing. This is true in many ways, but mostly because she is a wonderful storyteller, without even knowing it. I would listen, as a child, when some friend of hers came to visit, and they would gossip about the different people they knew. My mother had the most fascinating stories about people's families, murderers, mental illnesses, babies abandoned, and she delivered it all in a matter-of-fact way that was terribly compelling. It made me believe that there was nothing more interesting than the lives of people, their real hidden lives, and this of course can lead one down the path of becoming a fiction writer."

"Later, in college, one of my favorite things was to go into town and sit at the counter at Woolworth's (so tragic to have them gone!) and listen to people talking; the waitresses and the customers -- I loved it. I still love to eavesdrop, but mostly I like the idea of being around people who are right in the middle of their lives, revealing certain details to each other -- leaving the rest for me to make up."

"I love theater. I love sitting in an audience and having the actors right there, playing out what it means to be a human being. There is something about the actual relationship that is going on between the audience and the actors that I just love. I love seeing the sets and costumes, the decisions that have been made about the staging...it's a place for the eye and the ear to be fully involved. I have always loved theater."

"I also like cell phones. What I mean by that is I hear many people complain about cell phones; they can't go anywhere without hearing someone on a cell phone, etc. But I love that chance to hear half a conversation, even if the person is just saying, ‘Hi honey, I'll be home in ten minutes, do you want me to bring some milk?' And I'm also grateful to have a cell phone, just to know it's there if I need it when I'm out and about. So I'm a cell phone fan."

"I don't especially like to travel, not the way many people do. I know many people that love to go to far-off and different places, and I've never been like that. I seem to get homesick as quickly as a child. I may like being in some new place for a few days, but then I want to go home and return to my routine and my familiar corner stores. I am a real creature of habit, without a doubt."

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    1. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 6, 1956
    2. Place of Birth:
      Portland, Maine
    1. Education:
      B.A., Bates College, 1977; J.D., Syracuse College of Law, 1982
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Pharmacy

For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold. The pharmacy was a small two-story building attached to another building that housed separately a hardware store and a small grocery. Each morning Henry parked in the back by the large metal bins, and then entered the pharmacy’s back door, and went about switching on the lights, turning up the thermostat, or, if it was summer, getting the fans going. He would open the safe, put money in the register, unlock the front door, wash his hands, put on his white lab coat. The ritual was pleasing, as though the old store—with its shelves of toothpaste, vitamins, cosmetics, hair adornments, even sewing needles and greeting cards, as well as red rubber hot water bottles, enema pumps—was a person altogether steady and steadfast. And any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their home in the night’s dark hours—all this receded like a shoreline as he walked through the safety of his pharmacy. Standing in the back, with the drawers and rows of pills, Henry was cheerful when the phone began to ring, cheerful when Mrs. Merriman came for her blood pressure medicine, or old Cliff Mott arrived for his digitalis, cheerful when he prepared the Valium for Rachel Jones, whose husband ran off the night their baby was born. It was Henry’s nature to listen, and many times during the week he would say, “Gosh, I’m awful sorry to hear that,” or “Say, isn’t that something?” Inwardly, he suffered the quiet trepidations of a man who had witnessed twice in childhood the nervous breakdowns of a mother who had otherwise cared for him with stridency. And so if, as rarely happened, a customer was distressed over a price, or irritated by the quality of an Ace bandage or ice pack, Henry did what he could to rectify things quickly. For many years Mrs. Granger worked for him; her husband was a lobster fisherman, and she seemed to carry with her the cold breeze of the open water, not so eager to please a wary customer. He had to listen with half an ear as he filled prescriptions, to make sure she was not at the cash register dismissing a complaint. More than once he was reminded of that same sensation in watching to see that his wife, Olive, did not bear down too hard on Christopher over a homework assignment or a chore left undone; that sense of his attention hovering—the need to keep everyone content. When he heard a briskness in Mrs. Granger’s voice, he would step down from his back post, moving toward the center of the store to talk with the customer himself. Otherwise, Mrs. Granger did her job well. He appreciated that she was not chatty, kept perfect inventory, and almost never called in sick. That she died in her sleep one night astonished him, and left him with some feeling of responsibility, as though he had missed, working alongside her for years, whatever symptom might have shown itself that he, handling his pills and syrups and syringes, could have fixed. “Mousy,” his wife said, when he hired the new girl. “Looks just like a mouse.” Denise Thibodeau had round cheeks, and small eyes that peeped through her brown-framed glasses. “But a nice mouse,” Henry said. “A cute one.” “No one’s cute who can’t stand up straight,” Olive said. It was true that Denise’s narrow shoulders sloped forward, as though apologizing for something. She was twenty-two, just out of the state university of Vermont. Her husband was also named Henry, and Henry Kitteridge, meeting Henry Thibodeau for the first time, was taken with what he saw as an unself-conscious excellence. The young man was vigorous and sturdy-featured with a light in his eye that seemed to lend a flickering resplendence to his decent, ordinary face. He was a plumber, working in a business owned by his uncle. He and Denise had been married one year. “Not keen on it,” Olive said, when he suggested they have the young couple to dinner. Henry let it drop. This was a time when his son—not yet showing the physical signs of adolescence—had become suddenly and strenuously sullen, his mood like a poison shot through the air, and Olive seemed as changed and changeable as Christopher, the two having fast and furious fights that became just as suddenly some blanket of silent intimacy where Henry, clueless, stupefied, would find himself to be the odd man out. But standing in the back parking lot at the end of a late summer day, while he spoke with Denise and Henry Thibodeau, and the sun tucked itself behind the spruce trees, Henry Kitteridge felt such a longing to be in the presence of this young couple, their faces turned to him with a diffident but eager interest as he recalled his own days at the university many years ago, that he said, “Now, say. Olive and I would like you to come for supper soon.” He drove home, past the tall pines, past the glimpse of the bay, and thought of the Thibodeaus driving the other way, to their trailer on the outskirts of town. He pictured the trailer, cozy and picked up—for Denise was neat in her habits—and imagined them sharing the news of their day. Denise might say, “He’s an easy boss.” And Henry might say, “Oh, I like the guy a lot.” He pulled into his driveway, which was not a driveway so much as a patch of lawn on top of the hill, and saw Olive in the garden. “Hello, Olive,” he said, walking to her. He wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away. He told her the Thibodeaus were coming for supper. “It’s only right,” he said. Olive wiped sweat from her upper lip, turned to rip up a clump of onion grass. “Then that’s that, Mr. President,” she said. “Give your order to the cook.” On Friday night the couple followed him home, and the young Henry shook Olive’s hand. “Nice place here,” he said. “With that view of the water. Mr. Kitteridge says you two built this yourselves.” “Indeed, we did.” Christopher sat sideways at the table, slumped in adolescent gracelessness, and did not respond when Henry Thibodeau asked him if he played any sports at school. Henry Kitteridge felt an unexpected fury sprout inside him; he wanted to shout at the boy, whose poor manners, he felt, revealed something unpleasant not expected to be found in the Kitteridge home. “When you work in a pharmacy,” Olive told Denise, setting before her a plate of baked beans, “you learn the secrets of everyone in town.” Olive sat down across from her, pushed forward a bottle of ketchup. “Have to know to keep your mouth shut. But seems like you know how to do that.” “Denise understands,” Henry Kitteridge said. Denise’s husband said, “Oh, sure. You couldn’t find someone more trustworthy than Denise.” “I believe you,” Henry said, passing the man a basket of rolls. “And please. Call me Henry. One of my favorite names,” he added. Denise laughed quietly; she liked him, he could see this. Christopher slumped farther into his seat. Henry Thibodeau’s parents lived on a farm inland, and so the two Henrys discussed crops, and pole beans, and the corn not being as sweet this summer from the lack of rain, and how to get a good asparagus bed. “Oh, for God’s sake,” said Olive, when, in passing the ketchup to the young man, Henry Kitteridge knocked it over, and ketchup lurched out like thickened blood across the oak table. Trying to pick up the bottle, he caused it to roll unsteadily, and ketchup ended up on his fingertips, then on his white shirt. “Leave it,” Olive commanded, standing up. “Just leave it alone, Henry. For God’s sake.” And Henry Thibodeau, perhaps at the sound of his own name being spoken sharply, sat back, looking stricken. “Gosh, what a mess I’ve made,” Henry Kitteridge said. 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. As autumn came, the mornings darker, and the pharmacy getting only a short sliver of the direct sun before it passed over the building and left the store lit by its own overhead lights, Henry stood in the back filling the small plastic bottles, answering the telephone, while Denise stayed up front near the cash register. At lunchtime, she unwrapped a sandwich she brought from home, and ate it in the back where the storage was, and then he would eat his lunch, and sometimes when there was no one in the store, they would linger with a cup of coffee bought from the grocer next door. Denise seemed a naturally quiet girl, but she was given to spurts of sudden talkativeness. “My mother’s had MS for years, you know, so starting way back we all learned to help out. All three of my brothers are different. Don’t you think it’s funny when it happens that way?” The oldest brother, Denise said, straightening a bottle of shampoo, had been her father’s favorite until he’d married a girl her father didn’t like. Her own in-laws were wonderful, she said. She’d had a boyfriend before Henry, a Protestant, and his parents had not been so kind to her. “It wouldn’t have worked out,” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “Well, Henry’s a terrific young man,” Henry answered. She nodded, smiling through her glasses like a thirteen-year-old girl. Again, he pictured her trailer, the two of them like overgrown puppies tumbling together; he could not have said why this gave him the particular kind of happiness it did, like liquid gold being poured through him. She was as efficient as Mrs. Granger had been, but more relaxed. “Right beneath the vitamins in the second aisle,” she would tell a customer. “Here, I’ll show you.” Once, she told Henry she sometimes let a person wander around the store before asking if she could help them. “That way, see, they might find something they didn’t know they needed. And your sales will go up.” A block of winter sun was splayed across the glass of the cosmetics shelf; a strip of wooden floor shone like honey. He raised his eyebrows appreciatively. “Lucky for me, Denise, when you came through that door.” She pushed up her glasses with the back of her hand, then ran the duster over the ointment jars. Jerry McCarthy, the boy who delivered the pharmaceuticals once a week from Portland—or more often if needed—would sometimes have his lunch in the back room. He was eighteen, right out of high school; a big, fat kid with a smooth face, who perspired so much that splotches of his shirt would be wet, at times even down over his breasts, so the poor fellow looked to be lactating. Seated on a crate, his big knees practically to his ears, he’d eat a sandwich that had spilling from it mayonnaisey clumps of egg salad or tuna fish, landing on his shirt. More than once Henry saw Denise hand him a paper towel. “That happens to me,” Henry heard her say one day. “Whenever I eat a sandwich that isn’t just cold cuts, I end up a mess.” It couldn’t have been true. The girl was neat as a pin, if plain as a plate. “Good afternoon,” she’d say when the telephone rang. “This is the Village Pharmacy. How can I help you today?” Like a girl playing grown-up. And then: On a Monday morning when the air in the pharmacy held a sharp chill, he went about opening up the store, saying, “How was your weekend, Denise?” Olive had refused to go to church the day before, and Henry, uncharacteristically, had spoken to her sharply. “Is it too much to ask,” he had found himself saying, as he stood in the kitchen in his undershorts, ironing his trousers. “A man’s wife accompanying him to church?” Going without her seemed a public exposure of familial failure. “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.” A darkness had rumbled through him; his soul was suffocating in tar. The next morning, Olive spoke to him conversationally. “Jim’s  car smelled like upchuck last week. Hope he’s cleaned it out.” Jim  O’Casey taught with Olive, and for years took both Christopher and Olive to school. “Hope so,” said Henry, and in that way their fight was done. “Oh, I had a wonderful weekend,” said Denise, her small eyes behind her glasses looking at him with an eagerness that was so childlike it could have cracked his heart in two. “We went to Henry’s folks and dug potatoes at night. Henry put the headlights on from the car and we dug potatoes. Finding the potatoes in that cold soil—like an Easter egg hunt!” He stopped unpacking a shipment of penicillin, and stepped down to talk to her. There were no customers yet, and below the front window the radiator hissed. He said, “Isn’t that lovely, Denise.” She nodded, touching the top of the vitamin shelf beside her. A small motion of fear seemed to pass over her face. “I got cold and went and sat in the car and watched Henry digging potatoes, and I thought: It’s too good to be true.”

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Reading Group Guide

1. Do you like Olive Kitteridge as a person?

2. Have you ever met anyone like Olive Kitteridge, and if so, what similarities do you see between that person and Olive?

3. How would you say Olive changed as a person during the course of the book?

4. Discuss the theme of suicide. Which characters are most affected (or fascinated) by the idea of killing themselves?

5. What freedoms do the residents of Crosby, Maine, experience in contrast with those who flee the town for bigger “ponds” (California, New York)? Does anyone feel trapped in Crosby, and if so, who? What outlets for escape are available to them?

6. Why does Henry tolerate Olive as much as he does, catering to her, agreeing with her, staying even-keeled when she rants and raves? Is there anyone that you tolerate despite their sometimes overbearing behavior? If so, why?

7. How does Kevin (in “Incoming Tide”) typify a child craving his father’s approval? Are his behaviors and mannerisms any way like those of Christopher Kitteridge? Do you think Olive reminds Kevin more of his mother or of his father?

8. In “A Little Burst,” why do you think Olive is so keen on having a positive relationship with Suzanne, whom she obviously dislikes? How is this a reflection of how she treats other people in town?

9. Does it seem fitting to you that Olive would not respond while others ridiculed her body and her choice of clothing at Christopher and Suzanne’s wedding?

10. How do you think Olive perceives boundaries and possessiveness, especially in regard to relationships?

11. Elizabeth Strout writes, “The appetites of the body were private battles” (“Starving,” page 89). In what ways is this true? Are there “appetites” that could be described as battles waged in public? Which ones, and why?

12. Why does Nina elicit such a strong reaction from Olive in “Starving”? What does Olive notice that moves her to tears in public? Why did witnessing this scene turn Harmon away from Bonnie?

13. In “A Different Road,” Strout writes about Olive and Henry: “No, they would never get over that night because they had said things that altered how they saw each other” (p. 124). What is it that Olive and Henry say to each other while being held hostage in the hospital bathroom that has this effect? Have you experienced a moment like this in one of your close relationships?

14. In “Tulips” and in “Basket of Trips,” Olive visits people in difficult circumstances (Henry in the convalescent home, and Marlene Bonney at her husband’s funeral) in hopes that “in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement” (p. 172). In what ways do the tragedies of others shine light on Olive’s trials with Christopher’s departure and Henry’s illness? How do those experiences change Olive’s interactions with others? Is she more compassionate or more indifferent? Is she more approachable or more guarded? Is she more hopeful or more pessimistic?

15. In “Ship in a Bottle,” Julie is jilted by her fiancé, Bruce, on her wedding day. Julie’s mother, Anita, furious at Bruce’s betrayal, shoots at him soon after. Julie quotes Olive Kitteridge as having told her seventh-grade class, “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else” (p. 195). What do you think Olive means by this phrase? How does Olive’s life reflect this idea? Who is afraid of his or her hunger in these stories?

16. In “Security,” do you get the impression that Olive likes Ann, Christopher’s new wife? Why does she excuse Ann’s smoking and drinking while pregnant with Christopher’s first child (and Henry’s first grandchild)? Why does she seem so accepting initially, and what makes her less so as the story goes on?

17. Was Christopher justified in his fight with Olive in “Security”? Did he kick her out, or did she voluntarily leave? Do you think he and Ann are cruel to Olive?

18. Do you think Olive is really oblivious to how others see her– especially Christopher? Do you think she found Christopher’s accusations in “Security” shocking or just unexpected?

19. What’s happened to Rebecca at the end of “Criminal”? Where do you think she goes, and why do you think she feels compelled to go? Do you think she’s satisfied with her life with David? What do you think are the reasons she can’t hold down a job?

20. What elements of Olive’s personality are revealed in her relationship with Jack Kennison in “River”? How does their interaction reflect changes in her perspective on her son? On the way she treated Henry? On the way she sees the world?

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