Remember that teacher you had who you absolutely couldn’t stand? She was the sternest, most ornery educator you’d ever met, and you dreaded coming into her classroom because, well, she was scary. Yet when it came right down to it, she really knew her stuff, and you actually learned a lot in her class. And not just about algebra, you learned life lessons too.
The 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winner is about one of those teachers. Olive Kitteridge is her name. Although none of the tales that comprise this “novel in stories” takes place in the classroom, Olive, a crabby, shrewd seventh-grade math teacher and the protagonist of this book, teaches a lesson in all of them, and on occasion she’s the student.
Olive isn’t a likeable central character: she’s judgmental, overbearing, abrasive. She’s the most intimidating teacher at school; generally, she dislikes her neighbors. At home, she nags and chides her melancholy son, Christopher, and she lashes out at her loyal husband, Henry: “‘All I do is cook and clean up after people,’ Olive might shout, slamming a bowl of beef stew before [Henry]. ‘People are just waiting for me to serve them, with their faces hanging out’” (Strout 13). It’s obvious she harbors a great deal of anger and resentment.
Yet despite her sour demeanor, Olive has moments of incredible compassion and insight. In the thirteen stories that make up Strout’s novel, both the best and worst parts of Olive’s character are brought to light. In “Starving,” she is surprisingly sympathetic to a young anorexic girl. In “A Little Burst,” which occurs on her son’s wedding day, Olive is unexpectedly vulnerable and, at the same time, spiteful. With convincing detail, Strout weaves a raw, wide-ranging narrative of the life of one woman and the lives of those she unknowingly touches.
Much of the charm of Olive Kitteridge lies in Strout’s careful construction of the townspeople of Crosby, Maine, the coastal town in which Olive and her husband, Henry, the town pharmacist, live. Strout’s many characters are reminiscent of family and friends, neighbors you might run into at the grocery store. They’re authentic, they’re broken, they’re easy to relate to.
In “Pharmacy,” Strout’s exquisitely crafted opening piece, one cannot help but empathize with Henry’s deep longing to feel connected to his wife in the way he feels drawn to his young pharmaceutical assistant, Denise. When Denise’s young husband dies in a tragic accident, Henry takes it upon himself to care for the grieving girl. As time passes, their relationship grows into something more: “He and Denise worked in an intimate silence. If she was up at the cash register and he was behind his counter, he could still feel the invisible presence of her against him... their inner selves brushing up against the other. At the end of the day he said, ‘I will take care of you,’ his voice thick with emotion” (25). Because Denise relies so heavily on Henry —in a way that Olive has never needed him—he falls in love with her but never acts on it. Denise remarries, and Henry tries to tuck that ache away in the recesses of his heart. It resurrects itself only when he receives Denise’s annual handwritten letter. Throughout the novel this theme resurfaces again and again: the deep, characteristically human desire to be needed and understood is a source of conflict, moments of intimacy, and when left unfulfilled, a source of heart-breaking loneliness.
The story that immediately follows, “Incoming Tide,” expands upon the despair that often accompanies indelible loneliness, introducing another key motif in Strout’s work, suicide. The central character of this piece, a former student of Mrs. Kitteridge’s, is on the verge of killing himself. Then Olive shows up, and readers see an entirely different side of her personality. Conversing with Kevin, she’s sensitive, careful, and deliberate in choosing her words: “‘I’ve thought of you Kevin Coulson,’ she said.... At the very moment Kevin became aware of liking the sound of [Olive’s] voice he felt adrenaline pour through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure” (37–39). The quality of endurance that Kevin rediscovers fascinates Strout, who said in an interview with Robert Birnbaum that she is “‘deeply impressed with how people get through life,’ continually moved by the way they ‘just keep going and, for the most part, try to live as best they can’” (The Morning News, 26 August 2008).
Learning to get through life’s hardships, especially those commonplace ones that shape and affect so many—isolation, regret, guilt, the death of a spouse, the disappointment in love lost—is ultimately the crux of Olive Kitteridge. Some might say this is what makes the book such a depressing read, but regardless of the heavy subject matter, Strout’s prose is lyrical and light, and though she tends to shy away from happy endings in favor of more believable unhappy truths, the text offers up breathtaking moments of warmth and hope.
Through it all, Strout demonstrates her mastery for the short story, building suspense with elegant foreshadowing within as well as among the hybrid “story-chapters” that make up this novel. Although any of these stories could stand alone, those that are most compelling are those in which Olive has a strong presence. Her unique character, which the author has taken such care to flesh out for readers, sustains the novel. The weaker stories are those wherein Olive is in the background, yet Olive is always distinctly present, even if she’s just a passerby or an echo from school years past.
Strout’s small but impressive body of work shows that she is particularly interested in strong mothers like Olive. In her two preceding novels, the award-winning Amy and Isabelle (1998) and the bestselling Abide with Me (2006), she takes time to explore the relational dynamics between women and their children. Amy and Isabelle, which was made into a television movie produced by Oprah even though as a novel it keeps its distance from melodrama, is set in a small town and details a conflict between a mother and adolescent daughter whose lives are very much interconnected. On the other hand, the stern mother in Abide with Me isn’t necessarily a major character, but her opinion most certainly influences the temperament of her son Tyler, the novel’s protagonist. Olive’s relationship with her son is also difficult. She was hard on Chris as a child, and this has its consequences, which are revealed, as are other secrets, as the novel unfolds. One cannot help but feel heartbroken for Olive when her son as an adult keeps his distance from her. Divorced and living in California, Chris brushes aside his parents’ repeated offers to come and visit. When Olive thought about that, she:
felt a lump in her whole body, a persistent ache that seemed to be holding back enough tears to fill the bay seen through the front window. She was flooded with images of Christopher: As a toddler, he had reached to touch a geranium on the windowsill, and she had slapped his hand. But she had loved him! By God, she had loved him. (145)
She has difficulty seeing that her love for Christopher, however fierce it may be, was sometimes lost in translation, and maybe still is.
Strout constructs stories that allow her to delve into sources of family tension that are often left unspoken. Perhaps one of the most difficult stories to read in the work is “A Different Road.” When Olive and Henry are put in a life-threatening situation, they divulge to one another closely vested, hurtful opinions. At one point Henry says to Olive, “In all the years we’ve been married, for all the years, I don’t believe you’ve ever once apologized. For anything” (123). Olive is deeply affected, as is Henry, and though they won’t admit it to one another, from that moment on, their relationship is completely altered.
Originally “A Different Road” had been meant for a different character. For a while Strout had been working on a story about a long-married couple who end up in a hostage situation. She was trying to write something about Stockholm syndrome—a psychological occurrence in which a hostage identifies or has positive feelings towards his or her captor—but it just wasn’t working. But then a story of hers about a character named Olive Kitteridge was published, and after that it became quite clear that the hostage story was meant for Olive (Interview with Rob Thompson, Washington Post, 4 August 2009). After the horrible events of that evening, Olive continues to think about and even sympathizes with one of her captors.
Embracing feelings of sympathy and empathy in the face of difference is how the townspeople of Crosby connect with one another. Olive Kitteridge, in one sense, could be considered a series of lessons in empathy. As Olive’s and other characters’ eyes are opened to the reality that others’ troubles aren’t so different from theirs, readers’ eyes are, too. Strout says she hopes that her writing enables readers to gain a sense of personal growth. “We suffer from being quick to judge, quick to make excuses for ourselves and others, and I would like the reader to feel that we are all, more or less, in a similar state as we love and disappoint one another, and that we try, most of us, as best we can, and that to fail and succeed is what we do” (Olive Kitteridge: A Reader’s Guide 282).
With lucid, compelling prose, Strout succeeds in shedding light on family relationships, loneliness and isolation, the human need to be needed, and small pockets of joy and hope. Though never professionally trained in writing, Strout teaches her craft to undergraduates. Last summer, she shared some of her philosophies on writing: “You have to write something that makes you feel if you don’t write it, you’ll die” (“Elizabeth Strout Peaks Out for a Bit.” The Chicago Tribune, 31 May 2009). There’s a certain ineffable quality to Strout’s writing, in which Strout’s very own description of how to write rings true. Her poetic prose and sense of insight into the human heart are a rare gift.
Certainly Olive Kitteridge, the character and the novel itself, is a gift that lingers in one’s memory even after read and set aside. The book is a portrait of one woman’s life, the community to which she belongs, and ultimately, a narrative of endurance. Even after her husband’s passing, when life is excruciatingly lonely, Olive finds strength to continue:
And then as the plane climbed higher and Olive saw spread out below them fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun... then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life... She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed. (203)
And with that, Olive has taught us the most important lesson of all: loving and embracing the wonderful gift that is life.
Erin Dalpini works in Chicago as an Editorial Assistant at Fourth Presbyterian Church.