Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Opening sentence: “For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy.”
Given that Olive Kitteridge is the title character, it’s not until the fourth chapter that we are actually given an account of things from her point of view. She appears in every chapter, either as a reference or minor character, but there are only a handful where she takes centre stage. Essentially written as 13 short stories (some of which have been published independently before appearing in this novel), this is an interesting narrative structure that sees us meet a wide range of people living in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine in the 1960s – 1970s, each with their own unique story. Olive is the continuous thread that binds these stories together.
A retired maths teacher, she lives with her loving husband, Henry, has a complicated relationship with her only child, Christopher and due to her job, knows a majority of the people in her town. She is an interesting, complex character, ‘She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.’ I enjoyed how she is not immediately likable, her set-in-her-ways, formidable personality (as her husband says, ‘she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away,’) is revealed to us through other people’s opinions of her, as well as in her dedicated chapters, it becomes clear that she has had a profound and sometimes pivotal impact on many people’s lives, whether she realises it or not.
Last summer I read My Name is Lucy Barton, my first Elizabeth Strout book and I just fell in love with her effortless writing style. She can convey so much in a handful of carefully chosen words, create characters you instantly care about and describe seemingly ordinary situations in such a lyrical way, ‘A block of winter sun was splayed across the glass of the cosmetics shelf; a strip of wooden floor shone like honey.’ Character rather than plot focused novels seem to be her signature, as is definitely the case in Olive Kitteridge, although that’s not to say there isn’t an enticing plot line. There is even a dark thread that weaves its way through the narrative, every so often, little things are thrown in that add a pop of drama and make you question the true nature of people in general.
A random colloquialism I’ve never encountered before cropped up in this book – pocketbook vs handbag. For a while I thought Olive was taking little books around with her for some reason, until it finally clicked what Strout was talking about handbags! A quick Google confirmed it’s a UK / US language difference. Also, at one point, Olive has a little rant about the current (to her) president, ‘she couldn’t stand to look at the president’s face: His close-set eyes, the jut of his chin, the sight offended her viscerally. She had lived through a lot of things with this country, but she had never lived through the mes they were in now.’ After reading this, I actually had to check the publication date of the book (2008) and remind myself of the period it’s set in, as she so accurately could be talking about modern day America, it was kind of spooky!
It’s easy to see why this won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Elizabeth Strout is truly a writer that I am in awe of. The way she artfully weaves the story threads of so many characters – and gives them all depth and meaning – while creating a title character that is not a woman you warm to immediately, but one you grow to care about so much. Overall, Olive Kitteridge is a wonderful snapshot of human life, emotions and the complex nature of seemingly ordinary people.