A few months ago, a good friend dropped off a book, saying, “Here, you’ll love this. It’s a collection of short stories.” What she handed me was, Olive Kitteridge, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction by Elizabeth Strout. I thanked her a little too politely, all the while thinking, OK, it’s a Pulitzer winner, but I don’t really like short stories.
I set the book aside for a few weeks, then, feeling the weight of obligation, picked it back up again to skim my way through it. What I found was a complete surprise — not just a collection of 13 masterful short stories, but a complex, deeply moving photo album of life in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. This “novel in stories” is so crammed with emotional and bittersweet moments, hope and humor, that every now and then I felt compelled to re-read a passage just so I could be sure I’d fully absorbed its richness.
The main character is Olive Kitteridge, a sourpuss of a retired math teacher who harumphs her way through life. Prickly and opinionated, Olive is not exactly a likeable woman, but we see a lot of ourselves in her — both the bad and the good — and come to recognize the vulnerability and compassion under her unsentimental veneer. Despite her thorniness, she’s a real heroine for real life, and eventually we find ourselves rooting for her.
Though Olive is not center stage in every story (and we miss her when she’s absent), it is mainly through her that we are witness to the joys and heartaches of the townspeople. Strout, who is from Maine and no doubt drew from that background, spins melancholy stories that are mostly about loss, the consequences of age and the uncertainty of change.
In “Ship in a Bottle,” there’s the young bride who’s left at the altar. And the mother who goes off the deep end and shoots at the fiancé who’s jilted her daughter. “Basket of Trips” tells of a widow who discovers the secret of her husband’s infidelity on the day of his funeral. In “Tulips,” an unbalanced woman with a murderer for a son frightens Olive with her loony talk while declaring that she’s not one bit more out of her head than any other creature on earth. In “Starving,” a cheating husband buys two doughnuts, one for his lover and the other for his wife, which he gives her after his liaisons.
And in “Incoming Tide,” one of the earliest and most compelling of stories, a former student of Olive’s returns to Crosby, contemplating his suicide in the same town where his mother took her own life. He’s interrupted by Olive’s talkative intrusiveness, and, to his surprise, ends up rescuing a former acquaintance from certain death.
But the book is mostly about Olive, who shares her life with her sensitive and long-suffering husband, Henry, the town pharmacist who is devoted to Olive even as he’s buffeted by her black moods: “He wanted to put his arms around her but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.”
“ ’Do you know Ollie,’ he said…. ‘In all the years we’ve been married, all the years, I don’t believe you’ve every once apologized. For anything.’ ’’
“ ’What exactly are you saying?’ she asked. ‘What in hell ails you? What in hell is this all about? Apologies? Well, I’m sorry then. I am sorry I’m such a hell of a rotten wife.’ ”
Christopher, their depressed son, marries and moves away to escape the overbearing attentions of his mother. “ ’He left because from the day your father died, you took over that boy’s life,’ Henry tells Olive. ‘You didn’t leave him any room.’ ” Still, like Olive, we are stung when she overhears Christopher’s wife criticizing the dress Olive wears to the wedding and confiding in a guest that Christopher has had a hard time in life. “ ‘And being an only child, that really sucked for him.’ ”
Both Henry and Olive have platonic love interests at some point in their lives. For Henry it’s Denise, his sweet pharmacy assistant, whose main ambition is to marry and have a family. “Watching her, as she poked her glasses back up onto her nose while reading over the list of inventory, Henry thought she was the stuff of America….” For Olive, it’s a married colleague with six children who sweeps her off her feet, then loses control of his car one night and drives into a tree, killing himself.
In an authors’ roundtable for Newsweek, Strout, the best-selling author of Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me, revealed why, if the book is really the story of Olive’s life, she didn’t write a conventional novel rather than a series of shorter pieces. She broke up the continuing saga, she said, because she thought readers would get sick of the voice of that one extremely opinionated character.
As a writer, she said, “It’s a constant juggling of how can I tell something that I feel so intensely but that can be received with, not joy every minute or anything like that, but in a way that’s truthful to you.”
Well, if that was her intent, then she succeeded admirably. Far from getting sick of Olive, we’re left wanting to know more about her. We wonder how life will treat her in her waning years, whether she’ll make amends with Christopher, if she’ll find solace in human connection. And as we think about her, long after we’ve closed the pages on her life, we think about ourselves, too, and what life has in store for us.
Elizabeth Strout is on the faculty of the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and lives in New York City.
This story will be published in Mia Magazine’s winter edition. According to their website (MiaMagazine.net), “Mia Magazine is the voice of women. Each issue is filled with inspiring stories, motivational columns, and wisdom for living a deep, full life at any age. Mia is by women, about women and for women. Our full-color print magazine is published quarterly and distributed throughout Oklahoma and beyond. Real-life stories about relationships, money, career, health, motherhood and other issues are intertwined with women sharing their travel experiences and book recommendations. The magazine is also a forum where women can show their creative side – with poetry, photography and other art forms. Mia is more than just a magazine; it’s a community where women can share their life experiences, and learn from one another.”