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Olive Kitteridge: A Book Review

Elizabeth Strout reminds us of our humanity; let us disregard no one.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 2008. 267 pages.

Elizabeth Strout threads her stories like beads on the string of Olive Kitteridge, the title character of her book. She creates a bejeweled necklace of Crosby, a small costal hamlet in Maine, with 13 individual tales, each touched in some way by Olive Kitteridge, the retired feisty high school math teacher. Using this binding thread provides a satisfying structure and gradual unfolding that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The collection begins with the intimate story of Henry Kitteridge, Olive’s husband and the town’s pharmacist, and his blessed as well as cursed love for Denise, his daughter-like assistant. Denise is everything Olive is not: young, slight, apologetic, bubbly, optimistic and tender. Through Henry and Denise’s story, Stout introduces us to Olive’s coarse and pessimistic nature.

In the last story of the collection, we witness Olive’s life after Henry and the world as she knew it and had hoped it would be have either passed away or never come to fruition: Henry dead after the prolonged effects of a debilitating stroke and her son, Christopher moved away and distant from Crosby and Olive. Olive takes inventory of her life and begins to live and love as she never allowed herself to before, lessons she could only learn through her hard life and even harder demeanor.

The stories that fill the pages between the bookends fill out village life and the persons who make Crosby their home and workplace using a broad sweep of imaginative characters: Kevin, Olive Kitteridge’s former student who returns to his childhood home with the intention to commit suicide; Nina, the anorexic young woman who captures the hearts of strangers, including Olive’s; Molly, the bereft young widow with nary a mean bone in her body who ponders using a paring knife on her passed out, adulterous sister’s throat; The redheaded drug addict who takes Olive, her husband and others hostage in the hospital bathroom and for whom Olive sews a garden smock for him to wear in the prison garden; Christopher, Olive’s sensitive son whom Olive loves, but doesn’t know how to care for; Ann, Christopher’s second and pregnant wife with two children who gives her love as easily to her children as to Olive; and Jack, the wealthy Republican retiree from New Jersey with whom Olive stubbornly rediscovers love.

Although varying from omniscient to very close third points of view, the narrator’s voice never falters in its knowledge of Crosby, the natural environment of the seashore and the intimate machinations of the character’s minds as they wrestle with loss, loneliness, disconnection and love. Strout clearly understands the deeper emotional terrain of the human psyche in ways that most of us never bother to or are afraid to plumb. Through her characters, male and female, young and old, she reveals the core fears and desires we all share at one point or another in our lives. Through Olive Kitteridge, we learn of each character’s desires and pain. Ultimately, we comprehend (beginning with her solitary childhood and a father who committed suicide) how Olive Kitteridge came to see her life through such a harsh lens and later, how she removes that lens to allow herself the happiness she has deprived herself of for most of her life.

The magic of fiction allows us to live vicariously through the lives of those on the page. Through our imaginations, we learn to empathize with those we might otherwise disregard, those especially like Olive Kitteridge. After turning the last page, I physically had to catch my breath and in my mind thank Elizabeth Strout. At first I thought I had little in common with Olive Kitteridge, but after reading these 13 jewels of stories, I see that I was wrong. As human beings, let us disregard no one; we all have a bit of Olive Kitteridge in us.