There was a certain point in Olive Kitteridge when I was mentally adding it to my best-books-ever list. While it’s still a contender, it’s not quite lingering with me in the way those books do. But I don’t want to give the impression that Olive Kitteridge (henceforth OK) is disappointing or lacking in some way. It’s really brilliant, but also unrelentingly sad.
OK has an interesting construction. Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? Each chapter is a unique stand-alone story, but all the stories are about people in the same small Maine town. Olive herself appears in every story, but sometimes only as a mention. Other times, she is the main character of the chapter/story. To me the book reads more like a novel mainly because the stories begin in the past, but move forward in time. Also, there is progression and change in the characters, including Olive herself.
The first story introduces Olive through a story about her husband, Henry, and his unrequited love for one of his employees. By the end of the book, we have learned from various stories that Henry has had a stroke and has been left completely incapacitated in nursing home. Finally, in another story we learn that he has passed away. The book is a bit like being privy to all the best (and saddest) small town gossip.
The structure of the book emphasizes the idea/theme that people’s characters and motivations are often quite different than they appear from afar, from next door, or even in the same household. In many chapters, my understanding of the narrative direction and the character(s) was suddenly reversed or illuminated in a way that was both unexpected and sharply insightful. They were not the plot twists of a thriller, but more revelations of the complexities of the human heart. And they were often heart-squeezing complexities, too.
Olive herself is one of those complexities. If you’re like me, you’ll find her appalling rude to her husband in the first story, but then Henry so firmly loves and cares for her that I was willing to believe him over her sharp words (or believe Strout–which is a great testament to her skills). And despite the prickly, blunt, yet often clear-eyed old New Englander persona that Olive projects to others throughout the novel, we also learn about her deep vulnerabilities — her loneliness after Henry’s stroke and her utter bewilderment and sadness at her son’s alienation from her (physical and emotional). It’s not until quite late in the book that we can glimpse into his perspective (sad too!), but Olive never does.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, so this ticks another off that reading challenge list. I’ve learned recently that Strout has a new book out, which is supposed to be even sadder than OK. I look forward to reading more of her work, but I’ll have to put space between her books if that is the case.