Friday, January 22, 2010


by Elizabeth Strout

What to say about Olive Kitteridge? And I do mean the character, not the book. Except for a couple of disappointing chapters, I loved the book for its spot-on characterizations of small-town residents.

I find I must elaborate on my previous sentence in case you are wondering why I would disparage a few chapters and still love the book as a whole. The reason is that each chapter is almost a short story unto itself, all involving the character of Olive Kitteridge in major or minor fashion. In fact, when I first heard about the book, I had the mistaken impression that it was a collection of short stories. I tend to shy away from short story collections, especially in a collection by one writer, but rest assured, "Olive Kitteridge" is, as the title asserts, a novel.

I was quite prepared to dislike Olive, based on her first appearance in the book: Olive's husband, Henry, asks her if it is too much to ask that "a man's wife" accompany him to Sunday 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 onto the back of the 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, expects me to give up my Sunday mornings and go and sit among a bunch of snot-wots!'"

Allllrighty then, Olive! Tell us what you're really thinking!

But as I saw Olive through the eyes of her high school students and fellow townspeople of Crosby, Maine, I began to see her redeeming qualities, especially as she aged. Definitely one to express her opinions and admittedly caustic, Olive, it is revealed, does have tender, caring qualities which endear her to us, especially regarding her memories of Henry after his death, and later, her relationship with rich widower Jack Kennison.

Among the residents of Crosby, Maine, a couple of people particularly engaged me, including secret lovers Harmon and Daisy, new widow Marlene Bonney, and Henry. A pharmacist of a small-town drugstore, Henry becomes extremely fond of his sales clerk, Denise. Henry is a standup guy who would never stoop to having an affair, but he does have deep feelings for Denise, no matter that he does not act on them.

Amazingly, we learn that Henry truly loves Olive, despite her abrasive character.

As I mentioned before, the chapters that make up the book all mention Olive in some form or another, forming the glue that holds everything together. In some instances, the connection may be just in passing, as when the Kitteridges visit The Warehouse Bar and Grille, where 50-ish Angela O'Meara is the piano player.

I loved the story of Angela, who was a gorgeous redhead in her youth. Now, she is plagued by stage fright and has acquired a taste for alcohol to assuage that fear. A single woman, she has a married lover named Malcolm, and an old flame named Simon who "wanted to be a pianist and ended up a real estate lawyer."  When Simon pays a surprise visit, Angela discovers that Simon, who wants to tell her he has pitied her for years, is himself to be pitied. She informs him he "had married a woman and stayed married to her for 30 years, when she did not ever find you lovely in bed. "

Such insights into the human character just floored me.

A character much closer to Olive is her son, Christopher. From Olive's point of view, Christopher is strangely remote, and she cannot understand why he doesn't love her after all the affection she has lavised upon him. But as we come to learn, Olive may have been a smothering, even abusive mother. Again, the difference between perception and reality is enlightening.

Frankly, I was surprised that this book won the Pulitzer Prize, for it is quite uneven. As much as I did like it, I found that a few chapters were especially weak: Kevin Coulson returns to Crosby to commit suicide at his old childhood home, in imitation of his late manic-depressive mother. Instead, he ends up saving a woman who falls (jumps?) off a cliff into the ocean. But what of Kevin after that? And what of the woman?

As with all small towns, everyone in Crosby, Maine, knows way too much about all the other residents. "Jesus", asks Kevin quietly of Olive about his hometown. "Does everyone know everything?"

"Oh sure", she said comfortably. " What else is there to do?" For all of us who ever lived in a small town, her reply is both an answer long time in coming and undoubtedly true.

Getting back to unresolved questions, what about young Julie Harwood, the spurned bride, who runs away from her family to join her definitely uncommitted lover? And what about Rebecca Brown, the kooky girl-child who can't get a job and definitely has some mental issues, including her habit of setting fires? Both stories are decidedly unresolved and consequently frustrating.

In many ways, I found Olive to be like me, a person who thinks herself to be a really nice, good person but who is mystified as to why not everyone in the world likes her. Perhaps the most redeeming quality of the book is the self-knowledge that Olive Kitteridge acquires along the way.

Usually I remember the authors of the books I have read, but it wasn't until after I had finished "Olive Kitteridge" that I learned that Elizabeth Strout is the author of a book I read years ago, "Amy and Isabelle" (which I also recommend).

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