Elizabeth Strout: “Olive Kitteridge”

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Has there ever been a grimmer, more taciturn main character in a book than Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge? We’ve all known someone like Olive, someone who looks like she’s just bitten into a lemon, someone for whom a kind of self-righteous grumpiness rules the day. What’s so unlikely is to have such a Gloomy Gus serve as the focal point of a book.

And it must be said: Olive Kitteridge is not a sympathetic character. As readers, we don’t like her. Those around her – most notably her son – don’t like her either. Her husband is long-suffering. Perhaps in years past, he saw something redeeming in Olive, but even he has to brush off and walk away from her brusqueness.

Why, then, would I recommend a book like this? While we don’t like Olive, we do come to understand her – and maybe we come to understand a bit more about those unpleasant people who cross our own paths from time to time. For Strout seems to be saying: everyone has a story; there’s a reason everyone ticks the way they do. As novelist Melissa Bank says of the book in her review for NPR, who says you have to like a character?

Strout’s approach to this book and this character is highly innovative and very intriguing. Strictly speaking, Olive Kitteridge is a very loosely connected collection of short stories. Yes, Olive shows up in every story – but sometimes she merely walks across the stage or, perhaps, walks across one corner of the stage. In other stories, she is definitively the main character, and those stories help the reader plumb Olive’s depths.

This kaleidoscope of stories reveals the many facets of a character who at first seems the very definition of the term “flat.” Olive, it appears initially, has one note, which might go something like “Go to hell.” But as Strout turns Olive this way and that, puts her in or near one extreme situation after another, we begin to know her. If we don’t exactly sympathize with her, we do begin to care to some degree what happens to her. The ending – which I won’t give away – gives us as readers a modicum of comfort, as it does Olive, too.

In addition to painting a portrait of Olive Kitteridge, Strout also brings to life the world of Crosby, a small town in Maine. When we leave Olive behind – as we do in several stories – we stay in Crosby, and we learn the many ways the community hurts, then marches on despite this hurt.

Is Olive Kitteridge more than a collection of short stories? Can it be called a composite novel in the vein of, say, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time? To my mind, it does very much work as a composite novel. Like Hemingway, Strout doesn’t keep a steady, straight-ahead focus on her main character – but the stories, taken as a whole, give us a rich portrait of Olive nevertheless.

Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and was made into an excellent HBO miniseries, starring Frances McDormand as Olive. To translate the book to television, the screenplay writer, Jane Anderson, put the story in roughly chronological order with Olive consistently at the center of events. Despite this imposition of linearity where there is none in the book, the miniseries is a well-done production (winning eight Emmy Awards). It’s a good supplement to the book but not a substitute for it.

I highly recommend reading the book first, then watching the miniseries. To get started, you can read Chapter 1, “Pharmacy,” on Elizabeth Strout’s website. Then consider purchasing the book and the DVD to get the full Olive Kitteridge experience.

Listen and Watch:Listen to Sandra Burr read an excerpt from Olive Kitteridge, then watch one of the trailers for the HBO miniseries. To learn more about Olive Kitteridge, watch Elizabeth Strout discuss the book.

Image Credit: Elizabeth Strout at the 2015 Texas Book Festival. Photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 4.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_Strout_2015.jpg.