Winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 interconnected stories that “present a heart-wrenching, penetrating portrait of ordinary coastal Mainers living lives of quiet grief intermingled with flashes of human connection.”
Although close to 100 characters living in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine are introduced in the collection, it is Olive Kitteridge—a wife, mother, retired math teacher, and lifelong resident of Crosby—who is the dominant character. She makes an appearance in each of the 13 stories. Olive is the central figure as well as narrator of several stories while she is only casually mentioned in others. Her husband, Henry, and only son, Christopher, also appear in several stories.
Olive is not a very likeable character but is a very human one. She is a large, imposing woman who is opinionated, irritable, impatient, often trite and judgmental, insecure and vulnerable, and emotionally distant. Olive seems to prefer planting tulips to being with people. “She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.” (p. 148)
We immediately loathe Olive as we meet her in the first story, “The Pharmacy.” Although her husband, Henry, wants to put his arms around her when he comes home from work, he refrains because “she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” (p. 6) Henry is a kind and gentle man who remains a devoted husband, even when he is demeaned and ignored, which is often. He searches for happiness elsewhere—in his pharmacy business and friendship with a young woman whom he hires and befriends, which makes Olive even more irritated.
Barnes and Noble Reviewer David Abrams describes Olive as “the kind of woman you would duck across the street to avoid meeting. She's abrasive as sandpaper rubbed across a scab and unapologetically rude...To her genial, affable husband, she's a cross he silently bears with a forgiving smile. To her son, she can be a tyrannizing terror -- so much so, that as an adult Christopher can only break free of her maternal force-field by moving as far away as the continent will allow: to California.”
Elizabeth Strout says that Olive was the easiest character in the collection to create. “She is so vibrant, so powerful in her desires and opinions,” she says (p. 275). Strout describes Olive as “ferocious and complicated and kindly and sometimes cruel.” In essence, she is “a little bit of each of us.” (p. 276)
When asked about how other characters in Crosby perceive Olive, Strout replies: “I think Olive is partially aware of how people in town perceive her. But there are different perceptions of her, remember. To some, she is insightful and likeable. To others she is bossy and contentious. I think to some extent she believes that she doesn’t care what people think of her, but I also think that she does care…What she is, like most of us, blind to aspects of herself, she does not shy away from things she begins to perceive about herself; she is willing to strive after the truth.” (p. 281)
In one memorable scene, Olive retreats to her son and daughter-in-law’s bedroom on their wedding day in “The Little Burst.” Jealous of her new daughter-in-law because she seems so overconfident, Olive decides to teach her a lesson in humility. Rummaging through Suzanne’s closet, Olive steals a bra and one shoe and smears black Magic Marker on the sleeve of a sweater. Olive is pleased with herself:
“The sweater will be ruined, and the shoe will be gone, along with the bra, covered by used Kleenex and old sanitary napkins in the bathroom trash of Dunkin’ Donuts, and then squashed into a dumpster the next day. As a matter of fact, there is no reason, if Dr. Sue is going to live near Olive that Olive can’t occasionally take a little of this, a little of that—just to keep the self-doubt alive. Give herself a little burst. Because Christopher doesn’t need to be living with a woman who thinks she knows everything.” (p. 74)
In another powerful scene that ends the story “Security,” Olive abruptly announces she is cutting short her visit with her son’s family in New York house following an argument. At the airport, still angry at her “cruel” son and daughter-in-law and flustered by the security procedure, she refuses to take off her shoes, telling the security official, “I will not take off my shoes. I don’t give a damn if the plane blows up, do you understand? I don’t give one good goddamn if any of you are blown sky-high” before she is quietly escorted away. (p. 232)
We see a more compassionate Olive in “Starving” when she tries to comfort a young woman with anorexia and in “Incoming Tide” when she consoles a former student who is contemplating suicide. When Henry has a stroke and lives in a vegetative state in a nursing home, Olive visits daily and calls to talk, even though it is a one-sided conversation. Trying to follow Henry’s model of caring, she visits a recent widow in “Basket of Trips” but can’t bring herself to touch the woman.
Olive is on the verge of becoming likeable as a widow at the age of 74 in the collection’s last story, “The River,” during which she acknowledges her regrets in not being a more loving wife, takes responsibility for alienating her son, and realizes her capacity to begin to love again.
The characters in this collection, ranging from adolescents to aged, cope with change, depression, death, loneliness, relationship issues and family conflicts—the stuff of everyday life in which we recognize ourselves and others.
Novel or Short Story Collection?
I believe Olive Kitteridge would be a stronger collection if Olive had played a larger role in each of the stories. Although each of the stories in which she plays a major role add more pieces to the puzzle of her development, her character is never really complete. At the end of the collection there are still missing pieces that leave an incomplete picture of the evolution of this frustrating but fascinating woman. The weaker stories are clearly those where we see Olive at a distance or only hear her name mentioned.
“The Pharmacy” introduces Olive and Henry—a study in contrasts. Olive’s flaws are illustrated in vivid contrast to the virtues of her husband, and we despite her as much as we like him. “Oh, for God’s sake, Henry,” she often says in exasperation at something he’s done to irritate her.
Reviewer Abrams points out that it was a “bold move” for Strout to introduce the collection’s major character as a thoroughly unlikeable one in the collection’s first story, risking offending readers who might put the book down after reading “Pharmacy,” not wishing to know any more about Olive.
But like her or not, we find Olive intriguing enough to keep reading. As NPR Reviewer Melissa Bank writes, “Olive is a character who's as bad as you'd be if you let yourself — and that's partly what drives the book: You can't wait to see what she's going to do next.”
“The River” is an equally strong story, ending the collection with a more positive portrayal of Olive. A mellower widow at this stage in her life, Olive is “drowning in the emptiness” of her life and hoping for a quick death. (p. 257) When she begins a casual relationship with a man she had written off before as a rich snob, Olive is caught between longing for him and wanting to criticize him. “He’s afraid to be alone, she thought. He’s weak. Men were. Probably wants somebody to cook his meals, pick up after him. In which case, he was barking up the wrong tree. He spoke of his mother with such frequency, and in such glowing terms—something had to be wrong there. If he wanted a mother, he’d better go looking elsewhere.” (p. 262) And worst of all, he’s a Republican who voted for George W. Bush!
But desire and the need to be loved win over politics and other character flaws.
“They were here and her body—old, big, sagging—felt straight-out desire for his. That she had not loved Henry this way for many years before he died saddened her enough to make her close her eyes…
And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union-what pieces like took out of you.” (pp. 269-270)
Instead of wishing for a “quick death” as she once did to end her widowed loneliness, Olive realizes that although the world “baffles” her, she “did not want to leave it yet." (270)
Elizabeth Strout's Writing Style
Comparing Olive Kitteridge to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, San Francisco Chronicle Reviewer Ann Cummins finds that the collection succeeds because “the characters are so human, the place so vivid.”
About Elizabeth Strout
But Strout’s childhood was also a very isolated one. Her parents allowed no television, no newspapers, no parties, no dates, and no hanging out with friends.
Strout’s mother, a high school teacher, encouraged her daughter to write. By the age of 16, Strout was sending stories to magazines. Strout credits her mother as being an inspiration for her writing because her mother was a wonderful storyteller. She explains:
“I would listen, as a child, when some friend of hers came to visit, and they would gossip about the different people they knew. My mother had the most fascinating stories about people's families, murderers, mental illnesses, babies abandoned, and she delivered it all in a matter-of-fact way that was terribly compelling. It made me believe that there was nothing more interesting than the lives of people, their real hidden lives, and this of course can lead one down the path of becoming a fiction writer.”
In college Strout would sit at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s and listen to people’s conversations. “I still love to eavesdrop,” she says, "but mostly I like the idea of being around people who are right in the middle of their lives, revealing certain details to each other — leaving the rest for me to make up.”
Now that “tragically” the Woolworth’s counters are gone, Strout has turned to cell phone conversations for inspiration. Overhearing “half a conversation,” she says, can provide the germ of a story.
Riding the subway can also provide inspiration. “A number of my characters I have visually been able to take back to my work table from the subway,” says Strout. “It’s not that they were doing anything, but something in their physicality made me say ‘there she is.’”
Strout earned a degree in law from the Syracuse University College of Law and a Certificate of Gerontology from the Syracuse School of Social Work. She has taught creative writing at Colgate University and Queens University of Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Selected Olive Kitteridge Reviews
Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories
Olive Kitteridge (Strout) - Book Reviews
Review: “Olive Kitteridge” Stories Come Alive
What We’re Reading: DeLillo, “The Examined Life,” “Olive Kitteridge”
Who Says You Have to Like a Character