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Page Three of CultureWatch

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House;© 2008 Random House Paperback, 270 pp

This well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize was published almost two years ago, so it’s probably not new to many of SeniorWomenWeb’s viewers. I can’t, however, help putting a review out there for anyone who, like me, missed it back then. A dear friend whose opinion I respect suggested it to me, saying simply: “It’s a good read.” It is that.

Olive Kitteridge has been described as “a novel in stories.” Each chapter could very well stand on its own as a short story. Although most take place in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, there are occasional forays into other locations, all of which are linked by some connection to Crosby, and to the eponymous Olive Kitteridge.

Olive is a formidable woman, tall and solid and pragmatic, with a brusque and at times acerbic manner that covers a needy heart. She is highly intelligent, but prickly and difficult, given to strong opinions that she has no hesitation about expressing. Her husband, Henry, is easy-going, a man whose equanimity is perhaps his salient feature.

Olive and Henry both come from families long settled in New England. They have one child named Christopher, and many of the stories involve Olive’s damaged relationship with him.

Olive, who taught junior high school math, knows just about all of the town’s citizens and/or their children, and keeps them at arm’s length. Henry, who owns and operates the town’s pharmacy, also knows everyone, and to Olive’s exasperation, often involves himself in their lives.

The stories, which aren’t chronologically arranged, span several years. By the end of the novel, we have skipped backwards and forwards in the lives of Olive and her family and acquaintances so often that we have a nicely rounded picture of her.

A few of the chapters seem at first to involve Olive or Henry only tangentially. It is the author’s remarkable gift to weave a coherent whole where a lesser writer might have created only a patchwork quilt. These stories hang together even though they are spread over a great many years and invoke several individuals. They give the reader a deep sense of the connectedness of the small town and its inhabitants, and of Olive’s place in the scheme of things.

We see Henry’s and Olive’s son, Christopher, first at the age of 14, a sullen, withdrawn and depressed youngster. The next time we see him, he is grown, and getting married to a woman Olive does not like. When his wife’s unhappiness pushes Christopher into pulling up stakes and moving to California (leaving behind the house his parents had — in actual brick-and-mortar fact — built for him), both parents are devastated.

Less than a year later, Christopher’s wife leaves him, but despite his parents’ hopes, he does not return to Crosby. A short time later, Henry has a stroke so debilitating that he is put into a nursing home. For the next five years, Olive visits him twice a day, spending much of the rest of her day at home, lying on a small bed in a bay window, looking out over the view as she listens to her transistor radio.

Eventually, Christopher remarries, this time to a woman with two small children. They move to New York, and to her delight, Olive is invited to visit them. The visit begins well, but ends in disaster as her anger spins out of control, and she and her son are again alienated.

We last see Olive in widowhood and retirement, at the age of 74. Henry has died, and Olive, more than ever isolated by her abrupt, confrontational ways, is floundering. What happens next — well, you’ll just need to read the book. No doubt women of a certain age will find themselves quietly nodding in recognition over the denouement. The writing of those final paragraphs is as poetic and lovely a close as I have seen in a very long time.

This is a good read, indeed.

Julia Sneden, ©2009 for SeniorWomen.com

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