We’ve all known people like Olive Kitteridge. But I can’t say I’ve known a book quite like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.
Olive is a retired schoolteacher. Her husband Henry has spent a career as a pharmacist, until his business is bought out by a chain. They have one child, a son. Henry likes people, and enjoys helping them. Olive, well, Olive is what one might call an irregular person. Irregular as in unlikeable. Obnoxious. One wonders how she managed to teach schoolchildren for so many years. Well, maybe not. I occasionally had teachers like Olive Kitteridge.
Olive Kitteridge is a kind of irregular book, but not in the same sense as its main character. It’s a collection of 13 short stories, many of which barely touch Olive or her family. Collectively, the stories paint a picture of this woman, who she is, her prejudices, her disappointments. We come to gradually understand Olive, but we don’t develop sympathy for her. She is not a character who evokes empathy.
Her husband, Henry, on the other hand, is utterly likeable. He is doggedly faithful and protective of Olive, but he seems to find relief from his wife’s personality by reaching out to and helping others, smiling and affable the entire time. One wonders how he can stand his wife, and yet it’s clear he loves her. Only when Henry suffers a debilitating stroke do we come to understand that Olive is equally devoted, a devotion that seems to express itself through anger.
Her primary disappointment is her son. She and Henry have built him a beautiful home, when he suddenly and unexpectedly marries a clearly unsuitable woman (from Olive’s perspective) and moves to California. The marriage doesn’t last (Olive could and did predict it), and he remarries. He and his wife live in Brooklyn. When he finally asks his mother to visit, things go well for a time until she comes to understand that the reason for the invitation is that his therapist suggested it, as a way for her son to come to grip with his family and specifically his mother.
The stories become a kind of collective morality tale. How we behave and act, and how we relate to other people, has consequences. Olive will live the last of her life as she lived the rest of it – unhappy.
Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009, cited for packing “a cumulative emotional wallop, bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating.” It does pack that wallop. It does indeed.
Photograph, winter scene in Maine, by Junior Libby via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.