Olive Kitteridge is a book that has been lying neglected on my bookshelf for years. I had always meant to get to it as I had heard a lot about it and it had even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. I finally read it as I wanted to read the recently published Olive, Again which is not technically a sequel, but I thought reading Olive Kitteridge first would get me acquainted with the eponymous character. I have to warn you that it is not the best book to read during a global pandemic. In one word, it is DEPRESSING!
Olive Kitteridge is a collection of thirteen disparate short stories set around the mundane lives of the residents of the fictional New England coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a grumpy retired school teacher who features in some form or the other in every story. In some stories, she is the main character while in others she is a peripheral presence or just mentioned in passing. The structure is disjointed and the stories are not in chronological order. They span decades in the life of our protagonist- from middle age through old age- first as wife and mother, eventually caretaker of her husband who suffers a stroke and finally as a widow. More than stories, these are vignettes weaving a tapestry of senior life with its small town gossip, banal routines, simple joys and profound sorrows. If there is one overarching theme, it is loneliness…loneliness despite the presence of others. The reader is the voyeur who has a window into the unremarkable lives of these unremarkable people.
Olive lives with her husband Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist and her son Christopher, a podiatrist. She loves them both but she is unable to express her affection and treats them rather brusquely. In fact, she is a curmudgeon who is loud, aggressive and unkind to everyone in town. “She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.”
She has a sadistic streak to her. In A Little Burst, on the day of her son’s wedding, she overhears her daughter- in- law Suzanne discussing her with a friend. In a fit of rage, she steals Suzanne’s shoes and bra and ruins her cashmere sweater and this surreptitious act is her ‘little burst of happiness’. In the story entitled Tulips, Olive visits Louise and Roger Larkin who lead a reclusive existence after their son was implicated in a murder. The visit is not that of a friendly concerned neighbor or even one prompted by morbid curiosity. She visits them in order to feel better about her own life. Louise is on to her and accuses her thus: “ You came here for a nice dose of schadenfreude, and it didn’t work.”
How can a reader commiserate with such an intimidating and irascible woman? The stucture of the book is interesting as we get to see how Olive is perceived by the different residents of her town. As I come to know her better, I see her in a new light. People are complex and I was quick to judge Olive just as she is quick to judge others. She is capable of empathy for behind that mask of a cantankerous woman lie sadness, insecurity and fear. She is moved by the plight of an anorexic girl and bursts into tears:
Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina and said quietly, ‘I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.’
‘I’m not trying to,’ said Nina, defensively. ‘It’s not like I can help it.’
‘Oh, I know that. I know.’ Olive nodded.
And she, very profoundly, adds: “We are all starving.”
There aren’t too many older women depicted in fiction and it’s refreshing to get a peek into the autumn of life. We forgive Olive for although she is flawed, she is human. We feel sorry for the immeasurable loneliness she experiences in the emptiness of her home after Christopher moves away from her physically to California and then to New York and drifts apart emotionally too and when Henry is at a nursing home and after he dies. Along with Olive’s increasing self- awareness, the reader’s empathy and understanding deepen too. We learn later on that though Olive and Henry loved each other, they both had secret crushes on other people and were aware of it but didn’t talk about it. The truth is that there are a lot of Olives and Henrys around us, starved of attention and affection.
On the surface, the residents lead a quiet life but delve deeper and you realize that the specter of death hangs over every story. Just like Olive, death is an omnipresent force that inserts itself insidiously in every story and in every uneventful life. Olive’s father had committed suicide and she herself has contemplated it on occasion. In Incoming Tide, Kevin Coulson, sits in his car near the marina, on the verge of taking his life. And then there are other sorrows like having a son imprisoned for stabbing a woman twenty nine times, finding out that your husband was unfaithful on the day of his funeral and being jilted at the altar by your fiancé.
Life is difficult. And sometimes it is unbearably difficult. This is the human condition. In the midst of all the sorrow, there are a few moments here and there that provide a ray of hope like the sunlight that comes streaming in through the window slats of a dark home- a motif that recurs in this work. Ultimately, humans seek connection in a lonely existence, to make life slightly less unbearable. Olive, after the death of her husband, meets Jack Kennison and finds a new purpose in life. It is never too late to love. Lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies are as needy as young, firm ones, Olive thought : “But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union-what pieces life took out of you.”
Like Olive, the novel is not without its flaws. A Different Road stands apart from the other stories as its plot is implausible, in contrast to the stark realism of the other stories. The fact that Olive stops with Henry at a hospital to use the restroom and is forcibly examined by the nurses and that men armed with guns show up and hold them hostage seems too far fetched. This is the only ludicrous story in an otherwise brilliant collection.
There is a distinct New England sensibility to the work. The people reflect the weather and its moods, Yet, this small town is a microcosm of the larger world outside. We all inhabit this suffocating world and are familiar with its alienation to some degree. The beauty of this ‘novel in stories’ is how Elizabeth Strout with her lyrical phrases infuses the prosaic lives of these residents with poetry.
If I could paraphrase this book in one or two sentences, I would say: Don’t grow old along with me. The worst is yet to be. That’s how distressing it is! I certainly don’t look forward to growing old after reading Olive Kitteridge. Now on to Olive, Again. But before picking up that book, I need something lighter in the interim like a humorous Sophie Kinsella or a feel good romance novel.