Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

In this first week of older women in fiction around the world I am exploring some fiction from Canada and the USA. My fourth choice of North American older women in fiction is recent and very engaging. All four show older women who others might label as difficult. None of them is a gentle old lady, and all show considerable resilience. Olive Kitteridge, in particular, is not easy to be around, as you may know from the tv miniseries. There is no sentimentality in this fiction.

4 Olive K cover

Olive Kitteridge

This book is a collection of thirteen connected short stories about the people of Crosby in Maine, where Olive Kitteridge had been a math teacher in the local school, and her husband a pharmacist – so both are well known. The themes of the novel concern the community and people’s places within it. Elizabeth Strout writes on her website that,

It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.

Murkiness of human experience, that’s a good phrase. And that’s what we get in Olive Kitteridge. We meet all kinds of people, some of whom have made a success of their lives, others just seem to be getting along, not always happily. Some are in agony, others have lived through bereavement or infidelity and made their accommodation to the discomforts and the murkiness of their lives.

As the stories progress a clearer picture of Olive emerges. She is a woman who knew most of the people who live in Crosby, who endured her husband’s passion for another, younger woman, disappointments with her son who married and moved away, her husband’s severe stroke, and finally widowhood.

Through the stories the threads that connect the lives of the community are revealed. We see the longevity of some marriages, the rural rather closed community on the coast of Maine, the importance of small acts, the significance of social events – funerals, weddings, visits, eating donuts. Elizabeth Strout shows us broken social skills and people not coping. She shows us the warmth that communities can bring when they help people.

The older woman, Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is in her 70s, and she is not altogether happy about her physical appearance. Here she is, taking a moment for herself at her son’s wedding.

Olive is a big person. She knows this about herself, but she wasn’t always big, and it still seems something to get used to. It’s true she has always been tall and felt clumsy, but the business of being big showed up with age: her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seem to become the size of a man’s. Olive minds – of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage. (62)

She is not especially wise or heroic, comforting or generous. She is not an attractive woman. But Olive is perceptive and sometimes knows exactly what to say and do for other people, although with her own son she seems less surefooted.

Here she is sitting with Marlene, a not very bright but sweet and gentle woman who has just learned that her husband may have been unfaithful with her cousin, Kerry. This little scene is played out at the gathering following his funeral. They are watching Kerry sleep.

For a while neither woman speaks, then Marlene says pleasantly, “I’ve been thinking about killing Kerry.” She raises a hand from her lap and exposes a small paring knife lying on her green flowered dress.

“Oh,” says Olive.

Marlene bends over the sleeping Kerry and touches the woman’s bare neck. “Isn’t this some major vein?” she asks, and puts the knife flat against Kerry’s neck, even poking slightly at the vague throbbing of the pulse there.

“Yuh. Okay. Might want to be a little careful there.” Olive sits forward.

In a moment Marlene sighs, sits back. “Okay, here.” And she hands the paring knife to Olive.

“Do better with a pillow,” Olive tells her. “Cut her throat, there’s going to be a lot of blood.”

A sudden, soft, deep eruption of a giggle comes from Marlene. “Never thought of a pillow.” (177)

And Olive knows when not to say what is in her mind. But the reader gets her reaction. Earlier in the same story Olive is waiting to go to Marlene’s house to help Molly Collins prepare for the funeral guests.

Molly Collins, standing next to Olive Kitteridge, both of them waiting along with the rest, has just looked around behind her at that side of the grocery store, and with a deep sigh says, “Such a nice woman. It isn’t right.”

Olive Kitteridge, who is big-boned and taller by a head than Molly, reaches into her handbag for her sunglasses, and once she has them on, she squints hard at Molly Collins, because it seems such a stupid thing to say. Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right. But she finally answers, “She’s a nice woman, it’s true,” turning and looking across the road at the budded forsythia near grange hall. (164)

What we learn about Olive is that Henry kept her grounded. And when he suffers a stroke and later dies, she finds herself ‘out of life’. This phrase recurs, referring to the importance of social connections, meaningful ones, to make any person’s life worth living.

In the final story Olive does make a connection, with a man who voted for George W Bush to her horror. But she is learning to compromise, to see that this new relationship might offer her something in an otherwise bleak life. This new man’s need for her ‘had given her a place in the world’. (269)

I am pleased to say that the author has promised more of Olive Kitteridge in her next book Olive, Again  in September 2019.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2008. Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster 270pp. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Caroline Lodge of Bookword

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