Keith gave me Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout for Christmas and it was a beautiful read. I read it from cover to cover right away and couldn’t put it down. I am in the middle of reading it again, this time more slowly and enjoying it more. I don’t remember ever re-reading a book quite so quickly.
The main character is Olive who is married to Henry and they have one son Christopher. They live in a small town on the east coast of Maine in the US. Each chapter stands alone and has its own voice. It is a collection of short stories, in which Olive makes an appearance – sometimes she dominates, while in others her appearance is more fleeting. The first chapter is about Henry and this is where we meet Olive and wonder what she is really like, how their marriage has lasted and what shapes the relationship between her and Christopher. Each chapter reveals a little more about Olive. She is large and formidable, perhaps a little scary. In the second chapter, we learn that her father committed suicide when she was young, newly married and just pregnant.
There are times when Olive behaves with dignity and compassion and others when she is a complete relational disaster. She is very human – a real mixing pot of moments of goodness, kindness, anger and meanness. What was she like as a mother? She keeps saying that she loves her son and when you see how she behaves, you wonder…did he feel loved by her? Did Henry feel loved by her?
This is a story about relationships. What is it that makes a marriage last? We learn about Olive and Henry’s marriage, but we also meet Harmon and Bonnie – we find out that she has decided that she has had enough of sex – she says “I think I’m done with that stuff”. Then there is the moment when he asks “Bonnie, do you know my favourite song?” In that conversation, you see the bleakness and emptiness in their marriage – and yet, they have raised four sons together, they have lived many years alongside each other. The friendship that once existed is over.
It is also about the relationships between parents and their children. We find out about an awful thing that happened to the Kitteridges. It is awful, because we learn what they both really think of each other and their impact on the life of their only son, now married. Inside Olive is a huge lump of loneliness, hurt and disappointment. Olive plants her tulips and her life as she knows it changes irrevocably forever. Olive is a creator of beautiful things – her home, her clothes, her garden but does she have what it takes to create beautiful relationships? This is what she longs for. Indeed, don’t we all long for relationships that are safe and last through thick and thin? We also want to raise children who grow up, become independent, who want to remain connected to us in some way. We don’t want them to leave and the only conversation that takes place is on the phone with a monosyllabic response of “fine” when asked “how are you?”
This book is sad, evocative and readable. Elizabeth Strout allows the reader to ask questions without answering them for us. I felt like an invisible observer, caught up in the minutae of the characters lives – I can see those tulips, I can see the sea and I can see the home that Olive created so lovingly for her son – so why does he leave?
One of my work colleagues read this book at the same time and her reaction was identical to mine. I have given it as a gift to another friend who had already read it, but was delighted as she wanted to own it and re-read it. This is a seriously good book.