Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Through the 13 intertwined, overlapping stories of her 2009 Pulitzer winner, Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous protagonist Olive Kitteridge emerges from multiple angles – captured in close-ups and faraway distances; her intimate portrayal is greatly enhanced by sharing the lives of her fellow residents in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. [If you choose to listen in on Crosby’s residents, Sandra Burr’s diversely accented narration will not disappoint.]
Olive is a retired math teacher. She’s impatient, dismissive, and has an unpredictable, often nasty temper. Many are afraid of her. Her husband Henry is her opposite: he’s kind and gentle, always ready with a genuine smile and ears ready to listen. When their son Christopher suddenly moves to California with his sophisticated new wife – leaving the light-filled handmade house that Olive and Henry built, hoping it would someday be filled with their grandchildren – Olive’s loneliness becomes almost unbearable. Years later, she has more complaints and insults than support when her son calls her to New York to help alleviate some of the chaos in his life; his second wife is pregnant with her third child, his first. She battles her utter fear for Henry’s safety with abusive comments about his late mother while being held hostage during a bizarre hospital takeover. She has trouble forming the words, “I’m sorry.”
As caustic as she too often is, Olive is also unapologetically, empathetically, downright caring. She loves with all-consuming, silent commitment. She assures a former student who has suddenly reappeared in Crosby after decades away, how much she liked his mother, a town pariah who committed suicide. She weeps over meeting a skeletal young woman, wasting away from anorexia. She spends an entire morning at a doctor’s office with a near stranger just to make sure he’s okay. She talks gently to her husband when he no longer comprehends the world around him. Beneath her prickly armor, she could be the very best ally you’ll ever have … as long as you can survive her acerbic outbursts.
I confess that what repeatedly went through my head while reading this absorbing collection were ‘notes-to-self’ about how not to be as a wife, mother, or friend (and feeling oh so guilty over the times I’ve too closely resembled Olive’s bad behavior, ahem!). And yet here’s the amazing realization: Strout somehow manages to make Olive Kitteridge – as frustrating as she can be, as much as you would never want to be like her – such a memorable, sympathetic character that you would probably work very hard to get on her good side if you ever met her (there’s hope for me yet!). That said, I’ll be practicing my much-needed ‘I’m sorry’s in great earnest indeed.