Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I like this novel. And I like Olive Kitteridge. I am so pleased to have found this book and this writer. Elizabeth Strout was included on the Baileys Women’s Fiction longlist in 2014 with The Burgess Boys, and was longlisted this year with My Name is Lucy Barton, but I didn’t pay attention. So now I am looking forward to reading more of her fiction.

259 Olive K UK cover

The Novel

The framing of this novel is unusual – thirteen short stories, in which Olive Kitteridge plays a role, often quite a minor one. All the stories are about the people of Crosby in Maine, where Olive was 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 we find that a clearer picture of Olive emerges, as a woman who knew most of 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.

259 Strout

Elizabeth Strout has a very clear and sparse way of writing. She shows us what is and what is not said. And in the background the landscape of Maine is always present, the rocky coastline, the light from the sea.

The older woman, Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is in her 70s, and she is not altogether happy about her physical appearance. Her 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. Elizabeth Strout frequently refers to her size. 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)

In case you think Olive is impervious to life’s difficulties, here she is responding to another comment by Molly. Olive’s husband Henry has suffered a stroke and is completely incapacitated. Olive goes to talk to him every day in the local hospital.

“Is Henry able to understand, then?” Molly asks a few minutes later.

For Olive this is like someone has swung a lobster buoy and slammed her in the breastbone. But she answers simply, “Some days, I think so, yes.” (165)

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 an older 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. Jack’s need for her ‘had given her a place in the world’. (269)

259 Olive K US cover

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

The Older Women in Fiction Series.

This post is the 21st in my Older Women in Fiction series. Recent posts include

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

And still the most popular of all the posts is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The next in the series will appear in August, a Hungarian novel: The Door by Magda Szabo.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews, short stories

13 Responses to Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

  1. Thank you for this insightful post. Olive Kitteridge is one of my favourite books. Such an entertaining character, with the ability to move the reader too, often, as you say, with the words she chooses not to say. A beautifully written novel.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment Joanna. I agree with your assessment. I was thrilled to find this author. Her other books are now on my tbr pile.

  2. My Name is Lucy Barton was my first read from Elizabeth Strout but I was so blown away with it I’m slowly purchasing her back catalogue … I found her writing so measured & powerful and with her sparse style excellently executed it’s one of the best examples of the what is unsaid having an impact.

    • Caroline

      Hi Poppy, thanks for this. We may keep in step in our reading of her back catalogue, although I have yet to read My Name is Lucy Barton. Really looking forward to getting better acquainted with this writer.

  3. Anne

    May I borrow this book Caro? I have been wanting to read it having bought and watched the DVD of the HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins. I admire both these actors and enjoyed their performances. The short stories are dramatized over four separate hours and made wonderful viewing. Perhaps you would like to borrow it- let me know. Frances McDormand acts Olive with a very bleak exterior- she is rough and uncharming- but she is perceptive and watchful. Richard Jenkins as her husband is simply superb- he finds her so difficult to fathom and to please that he is drawn to easier more compliant women. Their marriage appears at first to be very cold but after his stroke you are shown how much she does in fact need him.

    • Caroline

      Hi Anne,
      I’ll do a lend-swap – the book for the DVD? From your description it sounds like the actors caught the spirit of the novel/short stories just right. As you may know I don’t usually like film versions of good novels, but I’m still interested to see the series.
      I think you will enjoy reading Olive Kitteridge as it has some of the qualities of Elizabeth Taylor.
      Caro xx

  4. I heard the author discuss this on a Radio 4 book programme & thought it sounded interesting; your post has had the same effect.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Simon, I’ll try to chase up the Radio 4 programme, although they often disappear before I get to them.
      Olive Kitteridge is an interesting character, and her presentation by Elizabeth Strout is excellent.

  5. Great post and a wonderful insight into Olive’s character. I liked her too, although, as you’re aware, I’ve come to know her by way of the TV mini-series. Funnily enough, a friend very nearly picked the novel for one of our book group reads, but we ended up with something else instead. I really want to read the book. especially given your enjoyment of it, but I may need to wait until my impressions of the series fade a little more.

    • Caroline

      Hi Jacqui,
      I’m sure you will enjoy Olive Kitteridge when you do get round to meeting her! But will it be too hard to keep the miniseries out of your head?
      Thanks for this comment.

  6. Eileen

    Just got round to Olive K – I’m loving it. Loving it, loving it.

  7. My favourite writer now. And much as I love Olive Kitteridge
    I think the Burgess Boys is her masterpiece. Have read both of these twice.

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