But the gesture, the smooth cupping of the little girl’s head, the way Suzanne’s hand in one quick motion caressed the fine hair and thin neck, has stayed with Olive. It was like watching some woman dive from a boat and swim easily up to the dock. A reminder how some people could do things others could not. -From Olive Kitteridge, page 64-
Elizabeth Strout has crafted a unique novel – one told in a series of stories linked together by one character: Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a retired school teacher living in the small, coastal town of Crosby, Maine. She is a fully imagined, complex character whose honesty, bitterness, anger and compassion intersect the lives of the townspeople, as well as her family. Married to Henry, the local pharmacist whose kindness and patience is recognized by all, and raising a single child – Christopher – Olive reveals a mixture of compassion and resentment toward the people who pass through her life.
Strout devotes full chapters to Olive and her family, but makes room in other chapters to examine the lives of more minor characters such as Kevin, a boy still grieving for his mother; Angela O’Meara, a talented local piano player who relies more and more on vodka to get through her days; Harmon, a man looking for love and Daisy Foster, a widow with a heart of gold; an anorexic teenager named Nina; Jane and Bob Houlton, growing old together; Marlene Bonney, the grocer’s wife, who discovers a secret beneath her own roof; and the Harwoods who live in the country without a flush toilet. It is through the lives of all the characters, that Strout examines the complexities of Olive’s psyche.
Written with warmth and and insight into the human condition, Olive Kitteridge uncovers what it means to survive day to day in our ordinary yet individual lives. Although there are moments of despair and sadness, Strout also treats the reader to Olive’s wry sense of humor, such as when she is visiting her adult son, Christopher and his wife in New York:
Olive could barely eat her dinner. She had thought Christopher was going to grill hamburgers. but he had grilled tofu hot dogs, and for the grown-ups had, of all things, diced up a can of oysters and poked them into these so-called hot dogs.
“Are you okay, Mom?” It was Ann who asked.
“Fine,” said Olive. “When I travel, I sometimes find I”m not hungry. I think I’ll just eat this hot dog roll.” -From Olive Kitteridge, page 208-
It is moments like this that allow the reader to forgive Olive’s weaknesses – her sudden temper, her cutting remarks, her tendency to lash out at those she loves the most. Olive’s ability to recognize the needs of others is far superior to her insight into her own motivations and fears, and it is this tendency to erect barriers which is Olive’s biggest challenge.
Elizabeth Strout has given readers a finely written novel about what it means to be human and how our every day lives touch others.
Recommended; rated 4/5.