Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. The group was unanimous, something quite unusual, in their praise for this book of short stories. Our agreement however did not prevent a spirited discussion of this woman who throughout the book made you laugh and cry.
The majority of the stories are set in the small town in Maine where Olive Kitteridge has spent her life as a child, wife, mother, teacher and retiree, the characters in this small town are the mirror through which we the reader see Olive.
Olive, who at the end of the novel you feel you know and would recognise if you met her on the street, is beautifully drawn; Strout’s language is evocative of place and time. Certain details of events are revealed and others left to the reader’s imagination. The observations of human behaviour are extremely perceptive; you can feel the guilt, pain and longing of the various characters in the short stories.
The relationship between Olive and her husband is fascinating, you see the devotion of the couple, but there is the feeling there is a lack of physical intimacy and joy in the relationship. Olive’s jealousy of Henry’s employee is something that makes you squirm with embarrassment for Henry. To think, that his wife would do such a thing!
You realise toward the end that Olive is devoted to Henry, you wonder did he ever know this or whether he remained in the relationship for the child, reputation or any of the other reasons that hold people together.
Olive and Henry adore their only child and Olive tries to do what is best for him, or is it what is best for her? His perception of his mother is quite at odds with her view of herself. Olive’s relationships with her daughters in law are a good insight into human nature. Olive dislikes the organised, articulate and educated first wife, who is possible like her, but she has softer feelings for the disorganised easy going second wife who is her complete opposite.
The observations made on human nature are very perceptive, the scene centring on the dress Olive made for her sons wedding, made me cringe in embarrassment for her. Strout also has the ability to remind you of yourself at a particular time, and to remind you that you may at times have been cruel, thoughtless or unkind to others. Olive’s panic at the airport is I am sure something we have all felt travelling, you could see the sweat and feel the fear.
Olive is practical and resourceful, willing to help others and go out of her way to help people in need, but she is unable or unwilling to express and demonstrate her feelings, other than in practical ways, she has great difficulty expressing her love for her family and her community. She built her son a house but was unable to tell him how much she loved him.
The characters in each story are beautifully written, you feel them and their pain and joy, you understand their place in this community and their relationship with Olive, even though Olive may have no perception of her impact on others or the value of her relationships with others.
The end redeems Olive, she discovers she needs people and people need her.
The cover, always an important part of any book club discussion, in no way reflects the novel, it is really quite odd, perhaps this support the old adage don’t judge a book by it cover.
An excellent book or short stories and a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize, we would have voted for it!
Review by Paddy