Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout Book Review


My mother and I watched HBO’s mini-series of this novel and I instantly fell in love with the story. The adaptation beautifully highlighted Olive’s quirks and sometimes meanness while giving her a supreme grace that made her anything but unloveable. And the novel did more than that, somehow.

Olive Kitteridge is written from the vantage point of many secondary characters along with Olive and her husband Henry. The novel actually reads, at times, like a short story collection. This benefits the novel because of the general benefits short stories have compared to longer works: Strout, within a chapter, is able to turn a seemingly unimportant stranger/townsperson into a human being, flawed and dying and full of love and tragedy. She holds a magnifying glass up to the person, showing what’s at the true core: a lost love from long ago, a lie they’ve let become their truth, a desire for death. And after the chapter ends, the reader is left reeling wondering how this information will shape Olive or Olive and Henry. Strout always weaves the Kitteridges into these stories somehow, even if the couple is seen across the restaurant and nothing else. But ultimately, I think Strout does this in order to accurately reflect upon the whole of human experience and suffering: we must know these people and their horrifying demons to know Olive.

Olive, a tough woman known for her toughness as a high school math teacher and as a mother, lives with her sweet husband Henry, a pharmacist at a local pharmacy. The first section of the novel is told from Henry’s perspective, and shows Olive as a funny, blunt, and sometimes hard woman who mocks her husband’s naivety. Henry’s sweetness lands him at the feet of a young woman and widow, hopelessly falling in love with her. And all the while Olive knows and laughs. “You get used to things, he thinks, without getting used to things.”

Through Henry’s perspective we also learn that Olive’s father committed suicide and that Olive herself has struggled with dark depression. Throughout the novel, however, Olive keeps finding moments where she desperately wants to keep living: “Oh, insane, ludicrous, unknowable world! Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.” It also becomes apparent that Olive was in love with another man (Jim) who she used to work with at the high school who eventually died. Olive consistently reflects on her age and what getting old means to her, ruminations on how the old can no longer put up with certain fancies the youth seem privy to; and yet, always, Olive is struck by how much the heart can endure, even in old age. She is struck by her ability to fall in love again, to heal from a heartbreak again. “There was no understanding any of it.” “They think they’ve finished with loneliness, too.” “Amazing- how the girl had no idea, as she plunked down their coffee, that her own arm would someday be sprinkled with age spots, or that cups of coffee had to be planned, that life picked up speed and then most of it was gone- made you breathless, really.” “One of those things about getting older was knowing that so many moments weren’t just moments, they were gifts.”

One of the most beautiful stories within Olive Kitteridge happens between a married couple who are about the same age as Olive and Henry, if not older. The two attend a concert and meet up with another couple and during this conversation, the wife realizes a strong lie that her husband told her years ago. Her heart plummets with the truth: her husband was seeing another woman. “An age old sliver of anguish shuddered deep within her- how tired it made her, that particular, familiar pain; a weight that seemed to her to be like a thick silver spreading through her, and then it rolled over everything, extinguishing Christmas lights, street lamps, fresh snow- the loveliness of all things- gone.” I have felt this suffocating sadness, that bitter knowledge of the truth that seems impossible, the swallow you desperately want not to do… So poetic and so true. “She wanted to say their hearts were too old for this now: you can’t keep doing this to a heart.” After a bout of arguing and confused, erratic thoughts and questions of what now?, the wife comes to a conclusion and lies down next to her husband: “Because what did they have now, except for each other, and what could you do if it was not even quite that?” The lies that pile up in a lifetime. The truths that may never come to light. Is it possible that we need not know? That we continue loving despite? It’s a heavy sentiment, this overarching love and partnership. But I think there’s truth in it.

Eventually, Henry falls into a sort of silent coma. Olive dutifully takes care of him until he passes: “People manage, she thinks. It’s true. But she takes a deep breath and has to shift her weight because it’s not true, too.” Olive keeps herself busy with trips to see her son (a hugely disappointing relationship in her life), volunteering around town, and going to bed early. Accidentally, Olive meets another man, a person callous and somewhat cruel who she becomes annoyed with and enamored with at the same time. Olive laughs at herself and cries at herself: she has become, again, her teenage self who waits by the phone for him to call, who stays up late just to see him across the table. “She had the sensation that she had been seen. And she had not even known she’d felt invisible.” Again, Strout hits readers with an observation more profound than anything: aging does not take away the thrills of youth or the excitement of falling in love or the desperation of heartbreak. “Without one sound of a warning, like a huge silent truck that suddenly came from behind, Olive had been swept off her feet.”

“She lived with a kind of terror, and a longing that felt at times unendurable. There were nights she didn’t fall asleep until morning; when the sky lightened and the birds sang and her body lay on the bed loosened, and she he could not- for all the fear and dread that filled her- stop the foolish happiness.” Why happiness? Why love? Why now? “They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones; that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it.” And if Olive Kitteridge, one of the darkest and meanest women in town, chooses love over not love, mustn’t we all?

“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.”

Let’s continue to be baffled; in love, and in life.


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