Olive Kitteridge a Thoughtful Look at the Human Condition

Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout

Random House 2008
ISBN 978-0-8129-7183-5

This book won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Such awards often engender as much debate as glory, so let me dispense with this right away: my vote would have gone to Muriel Barbery’s magnificent The Elegance of the Hedgehog. That said, Olive Kitteridge is certainly a worthy choice.

It’s not the sort of book that grabs you immediately. Like Our Town and Spoon River Anthology, works whose structure it evokes, Olive Kitteridge is a string of vignettes—thirteen in this case—loosely tied together by the appearance and opinions of Olive. The book’s also not immediately lovable because Olive is hard to like. It’s set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a retired school teacher who has lived in Crosby for many decades and has witnessed its changes, the bulk of which simply piss her off. She’s cranky, judgmental, and generally tight-lipped, but when she does open her trap there are barbs hanging from her tongue. (They are mild compared to what’s in her head!) One of Crosby’s great mysteries is how such a sourpuss is married to Henry, her good-natured hardware store-operator husband. Olive, not without some merit, suspects several local women of carrying a torch for Henry. One of the book’s delights is that Strout—who also penned the popular Abide by Me—keeps Olive in character throughout. I won’t reveal more than to say that even Olive’s “tender” side has rough edges. Henry’s perpetual optimism is one of the many things that get Olive’s goat, and her son’s lifestyle is another.

Each of the book’s thirteen chapters features a different town character—an anorexic girl, an aging piano bar siren, a bride left at the altar, a man cheating on his wife, Olive herself…. Each has his or her secret, or at least they think they do. Strout essentially updates Peyton Place, the 1956 Grace Metalious novel that blew the lid off a New England town’s secrets, though Strout’s cast isn’t as evil or as calculating. Nor are they as uniformly destitute as the characters that inhabit Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine, another book to which Olive Kitteridge can be compared. What Crosby residents are for the most part are ordinary folks trying their best to cope with what life throws at them. Like most of us, some endure gracefully, some make a muck of things, and most seek to find sublime moments to counter the painful ones. Olive, a large woman, is both the symbolic and literal anchor in the book. She’s not the axis around which the action unfolds so much as the looming presence that persists across generations and whose reaction to change—including her own aging—forces readers to ruminate on the human condition. You won’t come away loving Olive, but you may find—for good and ill—that there’s a lot of her in each of us.

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