Having finished Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge, I am left with the impression that it is a book written for or at least clearly of old people. Strout presently in her late fifties creates a community, a personality gallery really, in which older people are definitely the point of view of the story. Often the stories are about the deeply intimate details of long term relationships, their failures, their frailty, their dark beauty. I think Strout gets it right.
She creates a character in Olive Kitteridge whom we at first glimpse as an acid tongued partner to her husband Henry in the initial story, “Pharmacy.” Henry is a gentle complex soul and is a lovely foil to Olive’s more clearly focused personality. Her one interesting flaw in the first story is the way she speaks for her son defending him quickly to her gentle husband. The son never gets a word in. He doesn’t really try. He simply smiles in triumph at his defeated dad. Henry, not Olive, is the subject of the story. But her role portends the direction of her portrait in the book as a strong willed person who is figuring herself out, understanding herself as maybe not the easiest wife and mother to live with. But still persisting in seeing life matter-of-factly from who she is.
As Strout moves from one self contained story to another we get further glimpses of Olive. In the second story, we see her from the point of view of former students. She is a retired math teacher. One of these students has driven back to the little village to kill himself. Suicide is a sub theme in the book anyway. Olive Kitteridge jumps in his car as he is sitting outside a local restaurant and engages him unwillingly in conversation. She doesn’t actually know he is in the throes of crisis. But her banter pulls him back toward living. She talks about suicide in their lives. His mother killed herself. Olive’s father did so as well. Both Olive and her former student have obviously contemplated doing so themselves. The conversation shows us a lot about Olive and is lodged in “Incoming Tide,” a little gem of a story which leaves the reader thinking and wondering.
Appended at the end of the book, Strout has added a fictional discussion with herself, her character Olive and a representative of a Book Club. Strout can’t seem to leave Olive in the novel. She asks her questions that the reader has including one about the story of the young man contemplating suicide. Olive’s answer are satisfyingly grumpy and unclear. You know. Like real life.
As the book goes on, we see into Olive more and more specifically, both in her own evolving story at the end of her life and in other people’s stories that she blithely passes through, remarking (usually but not always on the “inside”) their stupidities and inconsistencies as well as her own.
There are two passages that struck me as beautiful. Olive first plane ride. It’s good to remember that at this point she is a cantankerous if not brilliant self derisive old woman.
“[A]s the little plane climbed higher and Olive saw spread out below them fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun, farther out the coastline, the ocean shiny and almost flat, tiny white wakes behind a few lobster boats—then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat, the new green of the fields, the broad expanse of water—seen from up here it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it.”
For me finally Olive embodies a passion for living that I admire. Yes, children even old people have passion the books says. The book ends with a love story about Olive as a widow. She realizes she has been not easy to live with. She sees herself and the idea of living mercilessly in a way that attracts me. But she is not done living yet. She finds herself helplessly drawn towards a widower who is (horrors) a Republican (“You voted for that man (Bush)?”). Despite their differences she sees their relationship as a grabbing for life.
“What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
So greediness for living surprisingly found inside a tart old woman’s thoughts and also a need for love that persists as we foolishly squander the gift of life we are all given.