Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

A collection of 13 short, intertwined stories Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Set in Maine the vignettes center around Olive, a former math teacher, her husband Henry, son Christopher, and the people who come in and out of her life. She is an overweight, gruff, and domineering woman. At times the reader can't stand Olive and her manipulative ways. At other times, we have empathy for her, and sometimes we even like her.

The stories progress chronologically as Olive and Henry age. We see her at her son's wedding, helping a young anorexic, surviving an attack, tending to a sick husband, becoming a grandmother and reflecting on life. Most of the secondary characters in the vignettes are people on whom she has had some influence, her family and students. In some of the stories, Olive makes only a brief appearance. Could this be because the stories had been published as stand alone pieces of literature? Or, is it because we need a break from the intense scrutiny that Strout imposes upon Olive.

One of the most dramatic stories, Incoming Tide, is one in which Olive, during a conversation with a former student, Kevin, who sits and contemplates suicide, witnesses a young girl slip off a steep craggy ledge into the ocean. She screams at him to hurry and save the girl from drowning. He dives into the water and tries to bring her ashore. The abrupt end of the narrative leaves the reader pondering whether she was, indeed, saved and also whether the two would be a couple after the incident. The theme of suicide is a frequent one in the book and it is interesting how each character who tenders those thoughts handles it.

Olive Kitteridge is a book that could be revisited again and could be put under a critical lens. Olive is really multidimensional despite her seeming predictability. As she ages she becomes a more lonely old woman whom the reader feels has missed out on the fun in life. At the book's end she feels gratitude and regret, but also a desire to keep living. In a poignant and insightful thought, she reflects,
"What young people didn’t know . . . They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as need as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it”
Olive Kitteridge will be a memorable person in the continuum of our literary heritage - a very good read.