Monday, February 21, 2011

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 2008
270 pages

This was another borrowed book on the El Salvador trip . . . we passed quite a few around to each other. (Thanks, Beth!)

Olive Kitteridge is a Pulitzer prize-winning collection of thirteen short stories seamlessly woven into a larger story about the impact one woman has on her family and community. The title character is a proud New Englander of substantial size, both physically and in personality. She's bold, bitchy, annoying, sensitive, and all too real. Olive treats her husband (Henry) and son (Christopher) like crap, yet she loves them fiercely (and has no idea she treats them like crap). Her "sphere of influence" may be somewhat small in that it's mostly limited to her hometown of Crosby, Maine, but she has an impact on all kinds of people as she defends the defenseless and never holds back, even when a gun is aimed her way.

I didn't like Olive at first. Her flaws and her humanness are just so real, at times it was like holding a mirror up to myself and seeing everything I don't like about me. But as the stories went by, I began to see her in a new light. By the last story (called "River") she redeemed herself almost completely.

I adored Henry, her pharmacist husband. His steadfast loyalty to Olive, despite her numerous shortcomings, reminded me that giving your life for someone else doesn't necessarily mean you have to die - at least not physically. Henry died a thousand deaths for Olive, but he would have died a million more. Talk about love. Not much was revealed about how they met, their courtship, and early marriage. At first, that kind of bugged me. I mean: why did Henry wall in love with Olive, anyway, if she was such a bee-yotch? Surely there was something "attractive" about her, at some point? But then I realized it didn't matter. Some things just are. And that's that.

There's an underlying current of depression throughout the book. Suicide, anorexia, alcoholism, divorce, loneliness, clinical depression and a whole host of other dark topics are woven into the stories. There are sad characters, such as Angela, the piano player at the local bar, and Denise, Henry's pharmaceutical assistant. There are people in loveless relationships, like Harmon. And people who don't love themselves. We also know that both Henry and Olive each had parents with problems, so there's the theme of passing things along to the next generation. Despite the sadness, I was drawn to the characters and increasingly, to Olive herself.

Now I'm ready to read something light and breezy. Gotta have balance, ya know?