Book Report – Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[NOTE: The final few paragraphs may give away more than you want to know before reading]

Officiant: …for better and for worse; in sickness and in health…?
Bride/Groom: I do
Me (to myself): You have no idea

My wife and I are in that time of our lives where we go to weddings of the kids our kids grew up with. During the last two weddings particularly I’ve been taken by the innocence, trust and hope the bride and groom have for their future lives. They say “I do” and they mean “I do” but they really have no idea (none of us have) of who their companion is and what the future holds in store for them.

Olive Kitteridge considers this fact when her son is marrying a woman she does not approve of:

“Weeping would not have come close to what she felt. She felt fear, sitting out there on her folding chair. Fear that her heart would squeeze shut again, would stop, the way it did once before, a fist punched through her back. And she felt it, too, at the way the bride was smiling up at Christopher, as though she actually knew him. Because did she know what he looked like in first grade when he had a nosebleed in Miss Lampley’s class? Did she see him when he was a pale, slightly pudge child, his skin broken out in hives because he was afraid to take a spelling test? No, what Suzanne was mistaking for knowing someone was knowing sex with that person for a couple of weeks.” (p67)

My wife and I have had our share of discovering ourselves together: we are both cancer survivors and have suffered through other maladies, surgeries, and other tests. Our share has been light compared to most; we have four friend couples whose children have been killed. I have no idea what that is like; but looking over the edge of that big black hole I know I’m supremely thankful that our challenges have not included that and hope that we will not.

Married life and the couples in the marriage change over time and the best we can hope is that we come through it together. When we are lucky, as my wife and I are, we come through the years closer and with more compassion and love than when we first met. We have been given the gift of love like Harmon had: “he felt something had been returned to him, as though the inestimable losses of life had been lifted like a boulder, and beneath he saw – under the attentive gaze of Daisy’s blue eyes – the comforts and sweetness of what had once been.” (p90)

Olive Kitteridge is the title character of a series of vignettes in which she is sometimes the main player, sometimes a side player and sometimes just barely mentioned in passing. Olive is a mean, cantankerous, scary, abusive person moving through life spreading pain along the way. She hurts inside: “She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.” (p148)

In the worst of times we are incapable of expressing or feeling a lifting love: “She would like to say, Listen, Dr. Sue, deep down there is a thing inside me, and sometimes it swells up like the head of a squid and shoots blackness through me. I haven’t wanted to be this way, but so help me, I have loved my son.” (p71)

In some stories, as in life, the epiphany comes too late: “Angie,…fingering her black skirt, felt she had figured something out too late, an that must be the way of life, to get something figured out when it was too late.” (p60)

Through it all, Olive can’t relate to any of it. She attends a funeral “hoping that in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement. But it remains separate from her,…” (p 171) By the end of the novel we have a clearer picture of Olive; we understand the toll her miserable loneliness and the toll exacts. Would she be able, finally, to “close her eyes to the gaping loneliness of this sunlit world.” ?

These are exquisite stories of relationship hits and misses. In addition to compelling dramatic narrative we get Elizabeth Strout’s impeccable description of light, clouds, and the bays of Maine. I challenge you to go to a bookstore and read chapter two: Incoming Tide and be able to put the novel down without buying it.

If the brides and grooms are lucky they’ll eventually discover

“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 not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.” (p 270)

Elizabeth Strout is an excellent author who tackles the themes that move through our lives. Read her novels.

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2 thoughts on “Book Report – Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

  1. I enjoyed Olive more quite a while after I had finished the book. At first I thought she was just harsh and unfeeling – it took me some time to think about her loneliness. The scene when she gets into the car with the young man parked out on the cliff sticks with me.
    I am loving these book report posts!

    1. Thanks, Robin. Olive has stayed with me all week as well. As the story progressed my opinion of her continually changed. That chapter of her with the teen was a microcosm of the that continual change. I kept thinking what’s going on with this kid? It takes a while for his intent to become clear. Then through the turn at the end of the chapter you could see clarity for the character. (It’s difficult to write about that without giving it away. That second chapter launched me through the book in a day and a half)

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