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.
Read an Excerpt
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.”