Cbr13bingo Shelfie BINGO BLACKOUT
Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge reads more like a short story collection than a novel. Set in the seaside town of Crosby, Maine, this book takes the reader into the lives and histories of its inhabitants with Olive at the center of many stories and on the periphery of others. Olive is a complicated woman, prone to moodiness and judgment but also capable of deep and unexpected compassion for her neighbors. Through the relationships of Crosby’s residents, Elizabeth Strout examines love, loneliness, mental illness, and ultimately the sometimes unappreciated beauty of the ordinary.
In the reader’s guide for this book, the first question is “Do you like Olive Kitteridge as a person?” It is the question I asked myself once I had finished the book. This character is at times absolutely nasty and aggravating but then later observant and compassionate. What I noticed is that Olive, given her own personal history as related in the book, is, at heart, hurt and afraid. Fear often shows itself as anxiety and anger, which is why Olive can be so prickly. She seems aware that folks in town think her odd, and she seems not to give a damn, except she kind of does find that bothering. She is very quick to judge and to say what she thinks, especially to her husband Henry and her son Christopher. Her relationships with these two characters, who are quite sympathetic, seem terribly dysfunctional and abusive. It is easy to dislike her as a person after reading the passages where she is so rough and thoughtless with them. But then Olive turns around and does something astounding and unexpected, at least to those not privy to what goes on in her head. These passages mostly deal with former students. Olive was a junior high math teacher known for being scary to students, and yet some of those students recall liking her just the same. She was no-nonsense, but she also could tell when a student was troubled and might need someone to talk to, and she doesn’t forget her students once they’ve moved on. This is especially evident in the second chapter, “Incoming Tide,” where she unexpectedly encounters a young man contemplating suicide, and in “Starving,” about a young woman with an eating disorder. The fact that Olive can perceive the needs in these people only tangentially connected to her but not recognize the needs of her own son is kind of heartbreaking. She loves her son fiercely, but her ways of expressing that love are messed up, causing grief for her and for her family. Olive is the kind of person who could have benefitted from therapy but would never in a million years have gone to it because why bother? Life is hard. Deal with it.
Mental illness is a theme that runs throughout the book, and Strout shows that depression, suffering, and loneliness are far more prevalent in Crosby than anyone would care to admit. Naturally, this has an impact on relationships, whether they be between parents and children or between husbands and wives. Strout writes beautifully of people finding love unexpectedly in the later stages of life and of relationships falling apart due to illness or infidelity. Olive’s own painful disappointments with love come out later in the book, and they make her somewhat more sympathetic. As she grows older, she softens just a tiny bit, enough for her to appreciate the love and beauty in her world, fleeting as it is.
If I had to sum up Olive Kitteridge in one word, it would be “poignant.” It is possible to both love and hate this character at the same time, and perhaps that is true about each of us. Olive, with all her flaws, can be a very relatable character. As I read this book, I was reminded of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Crosby might be a modern stand-in for Grover’s Corners, and both the play and this novel share the same over arching message about seeing how precious each day is.