by Elizabeth Strout
Reader’s Choice 8/08
How would you like to spend the last days of your summer in a seaside town in Maine where you would get to know the neighbors along with their many problems? How about if I told you that one of your neighbors was an overbearing, retired teacher by the name of Olive Kitteridge, whom you’d get to know by listening to her hen-peck her husband, Henry; butt into the life of her only son, Christopher and put her two cents into everybody else’s business. Sounds a little unpleasant, doesn’t it? Yet if you chose to go there by letting award-winning author Elizabeth Strout immerse you in the world of Crosby, Maine, you would have a treat in store for you.
“Olive Kitteridge”, Strout’s third work of fiction, contains thirteen beautifully crafted short stories that make up this novel. Olive and her kindly husband, Henry, are featured in a few of the chapters but all the remaining stories, centering on other townspeople, contain a brief appearance by Olive or simply a mention of her. It is a tricky thing to develop a character fully this way, but Olive emerges as a complicated and fascinating person.
The first story, “Pharmacy”, vibrates with feeling. It features Olive’s faithful husband, Henry, who finds himself unexpectedly happy and alive when he hires a good-natured, uncomplicated young woman named Denise as a cashier in his small drugstore. He hides from his critical wife his secret pleasure in going to work each day and spending free time with Denise and her fiancé. Yet just when as we proclaim Olive to be a shrew for her nasty remarks, Strout surprises us with the revelation of a deep private wound Olive bears that is opened by witnessing Henry’s happiness.
In the chapter’s that follow, Olive’s behavior is far from predictable. In “Starving”, Olive reaches out to an anorexic girl she meets during a house-to-house collection for Red Cross. A teary Olive says quietly to the frail girl, “I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart”. The girl then responds in a whisper, “I don’t want to be like this.” “Of course you don’t” Olive assures the girl, “And we’re going to get you help”.
Yet in “A Little Burst”, Olive slips into her purse some personal items from a bedroom at the wedding reception of her son, Christopher, and his bride, a confident physician named Suzanne who is hosting the celebration. “Olive tucks her handbag under her large arm, pressing it to her as she walks toward the door. It does not help much, but it does help some, to know that at least there will be moments now when Suzanne will doubt herself.”
In case you are hesitant to pick up a book with a featured character so unlikable, don’t be. Each story stands on its own as a work of art and paints rich portraits of the characters—likeable or not—of this small town in Maine.