Olive Kitteridge isn't kind. She's not magnanimous, and she's not particularly happy with the world. In fact, as OLIVE KITTERIDGE goes on, this being a "novel in stories," it's pretty clear that she has sufferred a great loss in her life and that that loss is bearing down on her like a mountain of pain. Elizabeth Strout, bestselling author of AMY AND ISABELLE and ABIDE WITH ME, finds a throughline in the later parts of Olive's life in which she learns more than she bargained for about the price of love and of life, and the painful freedom of death.
Married to Henry and with a son, Christopher, Olive has resided in the same small Maine town for most of her life. With a successful career as a schoolteacher behind her, she has the opportunity to revisit her previous life as mother and educator when she comes face to face with her students, grown up and dealing with their own trials and tribulations. Her marriage is built on a rocky combination of love and familiarity, and her relationship with her son changes intensely when he marries and tries to create his own family. But her black moods, which she attributes to her father's DNA, cause her to treat her husband and son with some disdain, under which a vein of deep love does flow but rarely shows itself.
For a while, Henry has a friendly love interest in Denise, the young woman working with him at his pharmacy. Olive finds herself seen (although she hadn't known she was invisible before) by a stranger who becomes a schoolteacher friend and then a platonic love interest of her own, a married man with six children who eventually drives off the road into a tree, possibly drunk but having made it clear to Olive that they have some deep and intense connection. Her son has several relationships, all of which Olive tries to undermine in some way. She marks up her new daughter-in-law's beige sweater with a black magic marker and steals one loafer from her closet because she doesn't like the way the bride looks at her son, as if this woman truly "knows" him beyond their sexual companionship. She also blurts our her disdain for his second wife, who already has two children by two different fathers and is pregnant with Christopher's own.
Then there are other stories into which Olive is thrown: anorexic young girls who die, and a young man, a former student and successful doctor, who returns to town and finds the harsh, blunt observations of Olive just the thing to bring him back to the world of the living and the purposeful.
OLIVE KITTERIDGE is about brave and soulful people who run up against difficulties and inconsistencies that stun them as they stun the reader. Like a more wordy version of WINESBURG, OHIO, this book looks at a place and its people with a magnifying glass that still makes room for their heartfelt desires to burn through and for all their various sides to come into focus, for a moment or two, until the next emotion rises strongly and takes centerstage. It's a tour de force for a novelist to engage a reader with this many strong personalities and dire circumstances.
Yet only once does Strout go overboard. It’s the chapter in which Olive walks into a hospital to use their bathroom during a road trip, gets questioned and is told to see a doctor by the attending nurse/receptionist. She ends up duct-taped and fearful in a bathroom with her husband trying to talk down an angry psycho in a pig's mask wielding a gun. Otherwise, the author shoots straight and deep into the reader's heart with a bullet made from all the parts of a difficult Yankee woman's physiology, surprisingly resonating with power and certainly causing some to recoil at such a direct hit.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 13, 2011