Notes on “Olive Kitteridge”

Although the works are not analogous, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge reminds me of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology. Both works survey and reveal the heart of a community and the relationships of its inhabitants. Strout experiments successfully with multiple points of view and an array of characters whose relationships or role in the community in some way inform Olive Kitteridge’s story. Each of the book’s thirteen sections is a self-contained short story introducing the reader to residents or visitors in Crosby, Maine, Olive’s home, over a number of years in the 20th-early 21st century. Nevertheless, each section adds another dimension to Olive’s own story while she is the glue connecting and enriching our understanding of those people.


One of the most affecting characters beside Olive  and her long-suffering husband Henry is Harmon, owner of Crosby’s hardware store. In the section entitled Starving, Harmon’s wife Bonnie no longer reciprocates his feelings after many years of marriage and tells him, “It’s done.” No more romance. No more conversations. Strout builds a picture of Harmon’s loneliness and melancholy, especially the pain he feels as an empty-nester with an unsympathetic wife. He forgets his confusion and losses in the company of a good-hearted widow, Daisy Foster whose kindness extends to Nina, an anorexic young woman she shelters in her home. Olive, too, visits Daisy and becomes the person who in her customary matter-of-fact way helps Daisy and Harmon persuade Nina to accept hospitalization for her anorexia.  Despite all Harmon and Daisy do to help Nina, the girl dies and they grieve her loss, which catapults Harmon into separating somewhat from his wife and embracing Daisy’s love.


Strout paints Harmon’s sadness and isolation through beautiful descriptions of the town and its coastal setting: among others, the sounds of boats tethered in the harbor, the weather, donuts, and short, direct conversations inviting the reader into Harmon’s frame of mind.


Olive Kitteridge is filled with compassionate portraits like those of Harmon and Daisy. Perhaps the word portrait is inadequate. Instead, because Strout treats the reader to an array of intimate character studies, loving explorations of a person’s inner life and its ties to other people would be more appropriate. The phrase is longer than portrait but indicates how deeply Strout delves into circumstances that shape us, that inform our responses to society and our choices. In the section Security, three-quarters of the way through the novel, prickly and brusque Olive is in a small plane on her way to New York City to visit her son with whom she has had a contentious relationship. She loves him but struggles to show him how much. As the plane climbs higher and she views the fields and coastline of New England, “Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again; a sudden surging greediness for life…it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it. The inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed. She had been asked to be part of her son’s life.”


The trip doesn’t end as well as Olive had hoped. Her insecurities and wounded self-esteem [self-inflicted] cause a temporary rift, but in the end Olive—and some of the other Crosby folk—realizes how precious the life remaining to her is, and she plunges into it.


The publisher’s blurb on the book jacket notes that Olive’s problems stem from her discomfort with change in the town of Crosby and its inhabitants, but also from her unwillingness to know and accept change in those close to her. As her narrative progresses through the novel’s thirteen sections, the reader does recognize Olive’s growing understanding of change and as the novel ends Olive finds a way to make sense of her life by investing in a warm, reciprocal attachment to another person. “But there they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union—what pieces life took out of you.

Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”


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