The Booklight: "Olive Kitteridge"
By: Ellen Baker, Living North, Living North
Don’t be scared of your hunger,” a student of Olive Kitteridge’s remembers the formidable seventh-grade math teacher saying. “If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else.”
The student then confesses, “Nobody knew what she meant.”
These themes of fear and hunger, the wish to be understood and the near
impossibility of it, are at the center of Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge,” the Pulitizer-Prize-winning collection of linked stories circling Olive’s life in a small town on the coast of Maine.
I loved this book, which is reminiscent of one of my favorite classics, Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” Thirteen stories are told from the perspectives of various townspeople; someone who was narrator of one tale will appear as a minor character in another. The prose is simple, forceful
and beautiful, with nearly every sentence an exquisite treat.
At the center of the tales stands the powerful Olive Kitteridge, who wields a unique ability to cut right to the chase, often providing a kind of dark humor which she probably doesn’t intend.
A young widow, on the day of her husband’s funeral, sitting near her passed out cousin who has just admitted to an affair with him, holds a paring knife to the cousin’s neck and asks quietly, “Isn’t this some major
vein?”; Olive suggests, “Do better with a pillow. Cut her throat, there’s going to be a lot of blood.”
When an anorexic girl expresses hopelessness, Olive asks whether the girl
hates her mother. The girl says no, and Olive says, “All right, then. That’s a start.”
And when a former student returns to town with plans to commit suicide, Olive lets herself into his car and sits with him, understanding, saying she remembered his mother, who’d shot herself — and that her father had shot himself, too, without leaving a note, to her mother’s dismay. “Mother …thought the least he could have done was leave a note, the way he did if he’d walked to the grocery store.”
In matters closer to home, Olive tends to be less perceptive. Her marriage to Henry Kitteridge – a well-liked, kindly pharmacist(the local lounge piano player thinks of Henry, “Whenever she saw him, it was like moving into a warm pocket of air”) — is fraught with difficulties. Even their loyalty to one another feels like a difficulty, much of the time.
Their grown son, Christopher, is a mystery and a heartbreak – especially after he starts seeing a therapist.(Olive tells Henry: “You’re not to worry
about that, Henry. In therapy they go straight after the mother. You come out smelling like a rose, I’m sure.”) As much as she yearns to, Olive just can’t figure out how to bridge the distance between her and Christopher, and often winds up making matters worse than they were to begin with.
This book is full of lovely and profound moments, subtle humor and a great deal of insight into the human experience — especially of the perpetual search for someone who might really understand. “I’m starving, too,” Olive tells the anorexic girl. “We all are.” Yet, happily, Olive does ultimately come to some (fittingly imperfect) realizations about how to create and savor connections.
“Olive Kitteridge” would make a wonderful gift for any lover of stories and of excellent writing. It would make a terrific pick for book clubs in the new year, as well.
Ellen Baker is the author of “Keeping the House: A Novel,” now available in paperback. She lives in Northeastern Minnesota, where she is working on her second novel. Visit her website at www.ellenbakernovels.com.