Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
“Stories about women in houses are the real stories of our lives.” The
quote, from director Todd Haynes couldn’t be more apt for this contemporary classic, Olive Kitteridge. Elizabeth Strout’s novel-in-stories, which has been compared to Sherwood Anderson’s classic story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, masterfully mines the emotional landscape of Olive and the constellation of townsfolk who populate the fictional New England coastal town of Crosby, Maine. The book is rich with the relationships—chief among them is her husband, Henry, the long-suffering town pharmacist, and their son, Christopher, an only child to whom Olive may be a tad too attached.
A Difficult Woman
Olive is a middle school math teacher who doesn’t filter well in the social arena and has a low threshold for anyone who can’t accept life’s hardships and just get on with it. With her oversized handbag and Dunkin Donuts and short temper, Olive’s character alone provides much of the tension in these thirteen linked stories, and she has just the right amount of abrasiveness and judgemental attitude to kindle conflicts pretty much everywhere she goes.
The collection’s opening story centers on Henry’s point of view, which allows us to understand how difficult a woman Olive can be to live with. In “Pharmacy,” it’s clear that Henry’s attachment to a young employee, Denise Thibodeau, intensified by the recent death of her husband, is an effect of a long and trying marriage:
Inwardly, he suffered the quiet trepidations of a man who had witnessed twice in childhood the nervous breakdowns of a mother who had otherwise cared for him with stridency. And so if, as rarely happened, a customer was distressed over a price, or irritated by the quality of an Ace bandage or ice pack, Henry did what he could to rectify things quickly…More than once he was reminded of that same sensation in watching to see that his wife, Olive, did not bear down too hard on Christopher over a homework assignment or a chore left undone; that sense of his attention hovering—the need to keep everyone content.”
13 ways of seeing Olive
Each of the thirteen stories shows Olive from another facet. In “Incoming Tide,” one of the earlier stories, Olive discovers a former student. Kevin, at the harbor. He’s about to commit suicide, and she not only intervenes, but is the one to spot Kevin’s former classmate who’s fallen from the dock into the rough water, and Kevin is the one to save her. We see Olive’s less benevolent side in “A Little Burst.” Christopher, a podiatrist, and now 38, is marrying Sue, aka Dr. Sue, M.D. Ph. D, from a Jewish family in Philadelphia. The couple’s wedding is being held in the house Olive and Henry built, and which they’re giving to Christopher and Sue. As the family gathers ahead of the ceremony, Strout calibrates the tensions—of class, region, education, and generation—that drive the dynamic through dialog and Olive’s consciousness:
“…coming from money the way she does, [Sue] will probably hire a housekeeper, as well as a gardener. (‘Love your pretty nasturtiums,’ Dr. Sue said to Olive a few weeks ago, pointing to the petunia rows.’)
In “A Different Road,” Olive reflects on a bizarre incident when, stopping at the emergency room to use the bathroom, she and Henry, along with a nurse and doctor, end up taken as hostages by a pair of locals intent on stealing drugs. Despite the situation, Olive and Henry quarrel over family grudges, and when Olive criticizes the nurse for praying, and Henry takes her side, Olive rebukes him as well.
With a character this large, the tone of a scene like that could end up harsh and unsympathetic, but the ordeal changes Olive, not because they were held hostage, but because of the things said between them.
Olive’s quips are as epic as her character: “No one’s cute who can’t stand up straight,” she says of Denise Thibodeau, and of Dr. Sue, observes, “How come a gastroenterologist? Plenty of other kinds of doctors to be, without all that poking around.” The setting too captures Olive. Set against the harshness of coastal Maine, the trepidations and stridency that are woven throughout the lives Olive encounters come alive. And the place names alone are terrific: Turtleback Island, Speckled Egg Harbor, Cook’s Corner. As we follow Olive over the book’s arc, it becomes clear that beneath the irascibility and criticism lies an empathy that is hard-earned. We come to see Olive’s susceptibilities through her relationships, and see her need to be loved, the empty places that perhaps drive her irascible nature.
– Lauren Alwan