Review: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Scholes

Not quite a novel, but not short stories either. Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is a portrait of a small community in Maine, each character orbiting around the figure of Olive Kitteridge; local schoolteacher, wife and mother.

Olive Kitteridge
Buy Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout for £7.99

This isn’t one of those sentimental accounts of a woman who occupies pride of place in the community. Olive is a troubled soul, who rarely has a kind word for anyone.

She is a constant in many people’s lives, whether that of her put-upon husband Henry, the town’s pharmacist, or their son Christopher whom she loves despite failing to convey to him the depth of her affection; various students she’s taught over the years, both those she’s scared and those she’s inspired; or her neighbours.
 

“It’s a rare achievement in a piece of fiction, and one that won Strout the Pulitzer Prize.”
 

Olive doesn’t even take centre stage until the fourth chapter, ‘A Little Burst’, which provides an account of Christopher’s wedding as seen through his mother’s eyes.

Her disappointment at his choice of wife—Suzanne, a headstrong doctor from out of town—is compounded through her own eavesdropping.

Olive overhears a conversation in which Suzanne and a friend discuss her shortcomings, from her inappropriate dress to the misery she inflicted on Christopher as a child: “He’s had a hard time, you know,” Suzanne tells her friend. “And being an only child – that really sucked for him.”

“But something stunned and fat and black moves through her,” as Olive processes what she’s hearing, clearly catching a glimpse of herself through the eyes of others for the first time. It’s a moment of unassuming genius on Strout’s part, illuminating the vision that lies at the heart of the entire text.
 

“She’s a woman you’ll begin the book hating… But, by the close of the final chapter, you’ll find your heart aching with sympathy for the woman, despite her many flaws.”

The novel is no straightforward depiction of one woman’s life. Instead our image, and with it our understanding of Olive Kitteridge is slowly pieced together, the final portrait a cumulative experience.

One that is able to capture the various complexities, weakness and strengths that constitute each and every human being. It’s a rare achievement in a piece of fiction, and one that won Strout the Pulitzer Prize.

A brave storyteller, she’s not afraid to leave Olive well alone for a chapter or two, allowing a host of other characters, and with them their own heartbreak and happiness, to become the focal point for a while instead.

Each mention of Olive, however fleeting, is carefully considered to add a different facet to her personality.
 

Olive KEtteridge
HBO's adaptation. Image via Beth Fish Reads
 

Even if that mention is nothing more than an innocent observation of her deciding where she and Henry sit at a church concert, or the recollection by an ex-student of her gruff advice—“Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else”

She’s a woman you’ll begin the book hating. Her callous attitude towards her son and husband in the first chapter, combined with her thoughtless exasperation with a young pharmacy assistant who is grieving after her husband is killed in a freak hunting accident, is almost unbearable to read.

But, by the close of the final chapter, you’ll find your heart aching with sympathy for the woman, despite her many flaws. She’s someone who both struggles with but also deeply understands the “tricky business” that is existence.

“Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee.”

And she’s played a more crucial role in that of those around her than she’ll ever know.

Olive Kitteridge has been adapted into a stunning multi-Emmy Award-winning HBO mini series starring Frances McDormand in the title role:

 

Buy the HBO adaptation 

Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, My Name is Lucy Barton is out in February. Pre-order it today

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Feature image via Anchored to Sunshine