Bitter “Olive”

Unknown“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is one of those books I’m glad I read, but which didn’t leave me with a very good feeling. Making the reader feel good is hardly a requirement for good literature, but I was still wishing for a tiny glimmer of hope for the human spirit within these pages.

Olive Kitteridge is a seventh-grade math teacher — the one the kids hate and fear but secretly respect and want to please — in a small coastal town in Maine. She is openly rude, abrasive, and has no concept of the effects of her actions on others. She is like a storm that her husband, kindly pharmacist Henry; and son Christopher have learned to steer around, tiptoe through, and clean up after (sometimes all three). Yet she has an extraordinary sensitivity to what is going on in the hearts, minds, and lives of others. She instantly takes a young woman suffering from an eating disorder under her wing, and her well-honed instincts zero in on a former student who is contemplating suicide. Depression is a thread that runs through the novel, as Olive’s father committed suicide and she herself lives with depressive illness, although she is loath to own it or get treatment.

This is actually a novel in short stories, “Spoon River Anthology” style, featuring other characters, plot lines, and desperation in the same town. All are connected to Olive, if only peripherally. It was a little dizzying trying to keep up with who was who. I wanted to know more about what happened with some of the characters, but others appeared to have been stuck in as an afterthought.

Central to Olive’s story is her disappointment over her son’s move to California after she and Henry have built a house for him and his new bride (who, not surprisingly, she can’t stand). After he has divorced, remarried, and moved to New York City, with a child on the way, Christopher invites his mother for a visit. Henry by this time has suffered a stroke and is confined to a nursing home, but Olive calls every night while she is away and has the staff put him on the phone even though he cannot speak. She is hoping to reconnect with her son, but before she knows it, she’s screaming at him — and he is responding calmly to her accusations, which of course irritates her even more.

I have not seen the HBO miniseries based on the book, but the reviews were positive (you can hardly go wrong with Frances McDormand in the lead). If you’ve read the book, seen the miniseries, or both, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.