I don’t know how much readers actually care about the awards books win, but Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer in 2009 and the book has been languishing on my tbr shelf since about then. It was June’s #bookspin choice on Litsy and I just managed to get it finished. Well, I shouldn’t say “managed” – that sounds like it was a book I had to force myself to read and it most certainly was not.
Truthfully, though, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the titular character or the novel’s structure when I first started reading. The novel is written as a collection of short stories in which Olive Kitteridge often figures only peripherally. In the first story “Pharmacy” we meet her husband, Henry, a kind and patient man who owns the pharmacy of the title. He seems quite capable of managing Olive’s prickly personality. When he suggests they invite his new employee Denise to dinner Olive responds that she is “Not keen on it.”
Olive’s relationship with her son, Christopher, is also strained. She loves him, but she is not, it seems, a mother given to the warm fuzzies. When adult Christopher, a podiatrist, marries Suzanne, Olive fights “the sensation of moving underwater – a panicky, dismal feeling…”. When she overhears Suzanne making unkind remarks about her, she exacts a small revenge.
…there is no reason, if Dr. Sue is going to live near Olive, that Olive can’t occasionally take a little of this, a little of that – just to keep the self-doubt alive. Give her a little burst. Because Christopher doesn’t need to be living with a woman who thinks she knows everything.
Olive comes across as rigid and unsympathetic. As a former school teacher she was feared. One of her former students, whom we meet in the story “Incoming Tide” says that “He’d been scared of her, even while liking her.” It turns out, though, that our initial assessment of Mrs. Kitteridge couldn’t be further from the truth. The humanity bursts out of her in ways that are, quite frankly, breathtaking.
In “Starving” a chance encounter with a young girl suffering from anorexia shows us one of the first cracks in Olive’s steely exterior.
Olive Kitteridge was crying. If there was anyone in town Harmon believed he would never see cry, Olive was that person. But there she sat, large and big-wristed, her mouth quivering, tears coming from her eyes. She shook her head slightly, as though the girl needn’t apologize.
Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina, and said quietly, “I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.”
This is just one instance of Olive demonstrating a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy. There are many more in this novel, and the cumulative effect of all these elliptical moments in a life is stunning. Each story is perfection and each character is fully realized. There are moments of tragedy and hope, of humour and despair; that is, there all the moments that make up a life.
Although I am sorry that I waited so long to read this novel, I am also thrilled that I got to discover it for the first time. I loved it and highly recommend it.