Overview: Olive Kitteridge
Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge, and it is certainly an interesting and well written book that I’d thoroughly recommend reading. The book is a collection of short stories, written over period of several years, and collected together for publication. The stories all revolve around a fictional coastal village in New England, and all feature to a greater or lesser extent – she often only has a cameo appearance – the ‘indominable’ eponymous character – a local school teacher now retired. The structure reminds me of Tim Winton’s The Turning, which is also a collection of short stories set around a small community, in this case in Western Australia.
Olive Kitteridge themes
Despite the short story structure and the easy, light, language, the book deals with some big themes: loneliness, life is hard and everyone has their issues, we are not in control – life is random, and we don’t really know each other even those that are closest to us. Big themes but themes that we all need to think about – Elizabeth Strout sees her purpose as trying to help people, trying to open their eyes – and what a great way to do this.
We all need to love and be loved, we’re told, and not loving can make us sick. Loneliness can kill people. Sometimes we need a friendly clerk, a waitress that knows how you like your coffee. Sometimes we find it hard to deal with other people, despite needing them. One of the characters is described as someone that didn’t like to be alone, and even more, she didn’t like to be with people. If we changed the gender, that could be my own epitaph! And sometimes we find loneliness thrust upon us when we lose a partner. Olive Kitteridge, despite not paying a lot of attention to her husband of many years when he was alive and active, started to feel loneliness when she lost him to illness. After losing her husband, Olive meets another man. She is accused of going on a date with him, to which she replies ‘We’re just two lonely people having supper’. ‘Exactly’ she’s told, ‘that’s a date’. Gold. The salve to Olive’s loneliness may not have been her choice had things been different, but the need for company overrides more superficial considerations. ‘If this man next to her now was not the man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either. 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.’
‘What pieces life took out of you’ is really the next theme of the book. Life is hard, and we are all dealing with difficult stuff. And, I’m not sure if this is coincidence or not, but most of the problems the characters in the book have seem to stem from their mothers! The characters suffer from childhood beatings, unrequited love, parents in prostitution and parents that committed suicide and they suffer from depression or react by living in denial – one character and her husband, facing terminal illness, try to keep a dream alive that they will travel one day – seeking solace in alcohol addiction, violence and escape through suicide – cycles continue.
Life is random – we are not in control. Much of the drama in the book revolves around seemingly random events happening to people, and how they react to these events. Olive stops for a toilet break and finds herself in the middle of an armed robbery, a girl gets killed after being hit on a train, her husband Harold suffers an unexpected and sudden stroke, and a husband is accidentally shot. Shit happens. We can plan, but sometimes the unexpected happens and we have to deal with it.
And finally, we don’t really know each other, even those closest to us. We have a bride jilted just before heading to the church on their wedding day, affairs and secret passions.
This book gave me a good deal to think about. Not all happy thoughts, but it forced me to think about some of the things most of us would probably rather ignore – but in the interests of understanding life and how to live it we really should confront these things.
My verdict: 9/10. A well-written and easy-to-read book that deals with some big issues.