by Elizabeth Strout
“What young people didn't know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly . . . No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn't chose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not know what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered. . . . But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union--what pieces life took out of you.” ― Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
This is a novel of contrasts: contrasting characters and contrasting stories. But the stories are linked thematically and by the character of Olive Kitteridge. It is Olive who,with her husband, is on center stage in the opening story. She 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. Kevin thinks to himself, "He had liked her; not everyone had."(p 34) 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, Maine that is hungry for love. Children disappoint, spouses are unfaithful and almost everyone is lonely at least some of the time in Strout’s realistic and 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.
Elizabeth Strout deftly demonstrates these emotion-laden stories with beautiful precise prose that more often hints at the feelings and shows characters reacting with glances rather than stares.
Strout demonstrates Olive's character from differing perspectives; in "Winter Concert" as Jane and Bob Houlton watch Olive and Henry arrive Bob turns to Jane saying "I don't know how he can stand her." The scene continues: "They watched the Kitteridges settle into their pew, Olive shaking off her coat, then placing it back on her shoulders, Henry helping her. Olive Kitteridge has taught math at the school Jane had worked at; very seldom had the two women spoken at length. Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology, and Jane had kept her distance. In response to Bob's remark now, Jane merely shrugged."(p 130) Olive's presence comes to be expected, but her encounters with other characters are never predictable.
At times the stories were reminiscent of the estimable Sherwood Anderson's tales of Winesburg, Ohio; the prose evanescent but precise enough to suggest the pen of Connell or John Williams. The dangers of societies everywhere, aging, the loss of love, the imminence of death, are present in the stories of Crosby, Maine. This is the sort of novel you enjoy for the perceptive writing and the resonance with lives lived elsewhere. Olive brings more tartness than most titular characters, but as a reader I was enchanted with her stories and those of the people around her. And I was ultimately won over by her humanity.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 2008.