After reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, I’ve concluded that it is possible to really enjoy a well-written novel despite a depressing theme and a thoroughly unlikeable main character. Strout has now published the followup book titled Olive, Again (which is on my To Read list) and since I’d never read the original Olive Kitteridge, I thought I’d better get up to speed by reading it first. I enjoyed her earlier books, My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible, and observed a definite theme to Strout’s writing. My first clue should have been that she’s recommended by Oprah’s Book Club and I’ve found Oprah’s recommendations are usually dark and depressing stories.
Olive Kitteridge lives in a small town in Maine, where she is a math teacher at the local middle school and married to the town’s pharmacist. When we first meet her, her son and only child, Christopher is a teenager going through all the predictable teen angst and sulkiness. Their life is a bland series of everyday events with ever-changing characters. In fact, Strout introduces so many characters in the story, at times it’s hard to keep track of them all. She tends to start a new chapter with a new character right out of the blue and then gradually fills in the threads that link them all together. And then, sometimes those threads drop altogether.
This book will particularly resonate with baby boomers because Olive Kitteridge is one. Olive’s moral code and value system are so deeply understood by our generation that we find ourselves sympathizing with her even though she’s not particularly likable. She’s cold, sarcastic, and judgemental.
I identified with this story on another level as well. Olive Kitteridge and her family live in a small town on the coast of Maine and I grew up in a small town of 3,500 people. There’s a particular kind of social dynamic and overlapping of lives in small towns that does not occur in larger communities. Even the way the characters speak has a unique cadence peculiar to local residents. I could so easily picture these people and Strout’s sharp understanding of their personalities and interrelationships.
The story is a kind of local saga that begins when Olive is a working mother and ends when she is 72 years old, the same age I am now. Reading it reminded me of Peyton Place by Grace Metalious with its sharply defined descriptions of mundane small-town characters, routines and lifestyles. But, underneath the church-going and grocery shopping, there are many sub-plots and sharp turns. Strout weaves infidelity, suicide, secrets, and loneliness into her characters’ lives. Each one is flawed and real.
There’s a cynicism in Olive’s view of life. “Behind the bored eyes of the waitresses handing out sundaes there loomed, she knew, great earnestness, great desires, and great disappointments; such confusion lay ahead for them and (more wearisome) anger; oh, before they were through they would blame and blame and blame, and then get tired too.” Olive’s glass is consistently half-empty. There are times I too look at the state of the world and also find myself being thankful I’m old and don’t have to go through everything the younger generations are facing.
Olive Kitteridge is an anti-hero and her struggles are relatable. Who wouldn’t feel disappointed when your son marries someone you don’t like? Who can really understand what goes on behind the scenes in the homes of secretive neighbours? And, the universal, “Is that all there is?”. As we follow the lives of Olive Kitteridge and the people in her life, we find ourselves searching out the good in everyone. It has to be there somewhere, doesn’t it? One of the only truly likable characters is Olive’s long-suffering husband Henry. But he checked out emotionally long ago.
The relationship between Olive and her son Christopher is complex. Unfortunately, we do not have enough background information on his childhood to make a judgment as to whether she was a good mother or not, if we’re inclined to judge, which most readers are. There are many unanswered questions involving other characters. They appear on the scene without explanation and we don’t understand why they’re there or how they factor into the plot and subplots. It seems to me Strout should have written a prequel about the earlier years, rather than Olive, Again, a sequel. Maybe I’ll find some of the answers when I get around to reading Olive, Again, or maybe I won’t.
I never did watch the television series based on this book. It starred Frances McDormand as Olive Kitteridge and she seems like the perfect person to play this character, although somewhat slimmer. Something else to add to my “To Do” list.
Boomers have now reached the point in life where our families are dispersed across the country. Many of us have lost life partners and most of us are retired and trying to make the best of what time we have left. Strout recognizes the inevitability of running out of time: “But she was seventy-two and he was seventy-five and unless a roof fell down on them both together, one would, presumably, be living without the other at some point in time.” This is a reality I know my own group of boomer friends has discussed.
It’s how we manage the hand we’re dealt that makes the difference. Olive Kitteridge is trying to do the best she can with what she was dealt. We may or may not like her approach but her journey makes for a fascinating read. I thoroughly enjoyed this thought-provoking book and highly recommend it. I’d rate it 9 out 10.
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