As often happens on Sunday, the day has nearly vanished and I’m wondering where on earth the time has gone. Of course, there was church – and today I played with the handbell choir for the last time before summer break, which meant (of course) that we must arrive quite early to set up everything and rehearse. Then I had this overwhelming urge to buy a new pair of shoes – silly, isn’t it? But there was a very good sale on at my favorite department store, so I drove over. Alas, no joy with the shoes (or anything else, really), and so I came home, collapsed into my favorite chair with a steaming mug of Earl Grey, and settled in to read. Having just closed the cover on a very wonderful book, now I can tell you all about it.
Olive Kitteridge – on first look, she and I couldn’t be more dissimilar. Physically, she’s tall, big boned and has become- well, rather stout with age, whereas I have always been small, compact, and am almost surely shrinking rather than expanding with time.
Olive is also a hard nosed, no nonsense kind of woman, in contrast to my easy going, soft hearted nature. She’s a junior high school math teacher (shudder) who has no truck with overt expressions of emotion. As a neighbor once described her, “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Maine born and bred, and she views life with a Northerner’s staid and steadfast pragmatism. When her husband Henry suffers a stroke which leaves him blind and dumb, Olive is only annoyed by the expressions of sympathy from the folks in Crosby, where she and Henry have lived their entire lives. “Why be sorry?” she thinks. “We all know stuff like this is going to happen. Not everyone can be lucky enough to die in their sleep.”
But here is how Olive and I are alike…we hide things. Emotional things. We tamp them down so deeply that no one can see them. On the outside, we continue to follow societies’ conventions of behavior, although sometimes it may seem like the most wasteful, useless thing anyone could do.
She has turned onto Eldridge Road, and this is a mistake because now she will have to drive by the house where her son Christopher, used to live. She almost always makes a point of going the other way, takintg the old route down to the bay, but here she is, and now she prepares herself to turn her head away, feigning nonchalance.
Oh, I know how that feels, Olive, really I do. Pretending not to mind when your heart is bursting with pain. “Feigning nonchalance” when your brain feels ready to explode with the injustice of life.
People manage, she thinks. It’s true. But she takes a deep breath and has to shift her weight on this wooden chair, because it’s not true, too. She pictures Henry, not even a year ago, measuring for the mopboards in their new room, down on his hands and knees with the measuring tape, telling her the numbers while she wrote them down. Then Henry, standing up, a tall man. The car ride- what did they talk about? Oh, how she wants to remember, but she can’t remember. In town, in the parking lot of Shop ‘n Save…she said she would stay in the car. And that was the end of their life. Henry got out of the car and fell down. Never stood up again, never walked down the pebble path to the house again, never said an intelligible word again…
As the novel progresses, so does the readers awareness of Olive’s true empathy and compassion. Though she tends to bully people, particularly her husband and son, she clearly loves them, and with a fierce intensity. One feels for Henry and Christopher too, because Olive is certainly not an easy person to live with. As Christopher finally tells her, “You kind of behave like a paranoid, Mom. You always have. And I never see you taking any responsibility for it. One minute you’re one way, the next – you’re furious. It’s tiring, very wearing for those around you.”
Olive Kitteridgeis one of those novels you don’t want to end. It describes an entire lifetime perfectly encapsulated in less than 300 pages, a microcosm of the modern world as it’s played out in a small seaside town in northern Maine. Structurally, author Elizabeth Strout has crafted the book like a collection of short stories, tied together by Olive Kitteridge, her family, her life. This works better than you would think, really – with the exception of a few chapters in which Olive appears only as an “extra,” which does a disservice to her strong character – the reader becomes quite well acquainted with Olive simply by watching her interact with the rest of the townspeople as they grapple with their own dilemmas. And in those chapters where Olive and her family take center stage, the reader’s impressions are clarified even further.
I loved the way Strout shines a beam of light on Olive’s reactions to the modern world, on her difficulty in accepting change, and on her response to the small joys of life. Olive’s morning routine – walking the dog, and then driving to Dunkin Donuts where she eats her donuts and coffee in the car while reading the paper – is indicative of the real sense of isolation she feels. It’s true, there is a deep sense of loneliness which pervades her life, but also a gentle humor and concern for the welfare of others. And by the end of this novel, the reader has been offered a rather surprising sense of hope.
Although I must say goodbye to Olive, I believe I’ll remember her for quite some time. Though our lives are very different, I feel as if we are kindred spirits on some level. I will think of her the next time I’m forced to “turn my head away, feigning indifference.”
And when I stop at Dunkin Donuts.
by Elizabeth Strout
published by Random House, 2008