Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2008.
Summary: A collection of short stories set in a small coastal village in Maine, centering around an aging and abrasive middle school teacher, Olive Kitteridge.
Olive Kitteridge is characterized at one point in this book as having “a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Her son at one point described her moods as capricious and that she never accepted responsibility for the ways she affected others. She was tall and imposing, irascible and difficult. And yet. She could cut through niceties to help a young man ready to take his life, or truly sympathize with a widow while her own husband was a vegetable. What you saw was what you got, and yet there were hidden depths to her that could catch you by surprise.
Olive Kitteridge and her husband Henry live in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a middle school math teacher and Henry a pharmacist. Elizabeth Strout develops Olive’s character through a series of chronologically arranged short stories featuring different people in the town. Olive is not in every one of them but recurs throughout the book, intersecting with a number of the characters as she retires from teaching, sharing life with Henry, a most accommodating husband, as they go through life’s changes and grief’s, including a son for whom they built a house, only for him to move across country at his wife’s behest, only for her to divorce him, and then for him to return to New York and a new marriage. Olive grieves so much she won’t drive past the house, leading to an improbable adventure at the local ER.
The stories explore the challenges and comforts of marital love, the infidelities of mind and body of different villagers, including Henry at one point for his pharmacist assistant Denise. There are heartbreaks and verbal wounds that are not easily healed. But one thing you will never find is hypocrisy from Olive. One of the highlights was when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law making fun of her clothes. Most of us would fume and pretend we had not heard. Olive goes into the daughter-in-law’s closet and deviously ruins several articles of clothing. She can be maddeningly matter-of-fact in her acceptance of life’s hardships. What else ought one expect of life?
Despite all the flaws and foibles and failures of individuals, Strout portrays a community that somehow coheres, that is there for each other in the hardest moments. She creates a place and a character rooted in that place in Olive–the houses she builds, the tulips she plants, the donut shop she and Henry loved to get donuts from. Olive and the others endure loss and glimpse their mortality, making there way through life and finding what comfort they can in each other.
In the end, we see a character who seemed utterly certain of herself, who does not change, but turns her honesty upon herself and comes to more settled terms with the person she is, and the possibilities of her remaining life. There is both fine writing and fine insight into the human condition here.