Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

I’m not sure when I would have read Olive Kitteridge (2008; Pulitzer), if ever, had it not been awarded the Pulitzer Prize last Monday.  For one thing, the book is not marketed to me.  With its coloring (probably going for a warm, autumnal quality but which instead brought to mind a too-rich honey—and I’m still not sure why the pictures are cropped the way they are, as if the whole setting is overlaid with saccharine), its cursive title, and its lead quote from The Oprah Magazine when there are quotes from The New York Times and The New Yorker inside, I still was not quite sure I would get on with this book.  Perhaps the marketing was genius and drew in far more money than, say, a Gilead-, Home-, or A Mercy-esque cover would have, but I’m convinced there are still many readers in a non-bookclubby audience who are hesitating before reading.  Perhaps, like me, they think this looks like one of those books that in an effort to poeticize pain and loss ends up, rather, sentimentalizing them to the point of bathos. 

Well, no one should hesitate any longer, at least not if what you inferred from the book’s cover was the hang-up.  Olive Kitteridge is a sublime and subtle book, and Strout shows that she deserves to be placed alongside Robinson and Morrison (and I’m sure many other American women authors, whose books I’m excited to get to) in the top tiers of American women authors.  By the way, I don’t think I use the word “sublime” too often (quick check done after this post was written: the only other time “sublime” is used on this blog is in a pulled quote from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; this is interesting in retrospect to what I wrote here).

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Sometimes, when I have such low expectations for a book, I end up liking it primarily—if not solely—because it surprised me by being better than I’d anticipated.  This can be done with little more than one fine sentence.  Olive Kitteridge did surprise me—and it kept surprising me—but in only a couple of pages I was no longer surprised at how well the book was written and about how compelling were the subjects written about.  It is one of the few books in recent memory that I wanted to keep reading when I finished.

Set up much like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (to be reviewed here soon) and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, this book is a series of vignettes involving the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine.  However, unlike those two classic works, Olive Kitteridge is not centered on “community” as part of the theme.  Rather, all of the stories revolve around Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher, the most scary teacher at the school.  Through her and the community’s perspective on her, Strout examines life’s building disappointments that make it, at once, unbearable and unbearably painful to see pass so quickly (“The spring was gorgeous, and seemed an assault.”).

We get the sense that Olive has always been an abrasive woman, but over the years life has not met her expectations and she’s loaded down by an unconfronted guilt due to her own failure to meet others’ expectations.  So, always sarcastic, she is frequently bitter, especially to those she loves.  Her husband Henry—from whose point of view we get the first, pleasantly lonely story—was a pharmacist whose best time of day was when he left home to go to work:

The ritual was pleasing, as though the old store—with its shelves of toothpaste, vitamins, cosmetics, hair adornments, even sewing needles and greeting cards, as well as red rubber hot water bottles, enema pumps—was a person altogether steady and steadfast.  And any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their home in the night’s dark hours—all this receded like a shoreline as he walked through the safety of his pharmacy.

This first story roams back and forth in time, giving us a foundational perspective on Olive and Henry, pre- and post-retirement.  Strout has a master’s touch at craft, and the time shifts are seamless and as rhythmic as an ocean:

Autumn now, November, and so many years later that when Henry runs a comb through his hair on this Sunday morning, he has to pluck some strands of gray from the black plastic teathe before slipping the comb back into his pocket.

Strout is also masterful in her portrayal of psychology.  I was particularly impressed and drawn in by the quiet way Strout conveys the psychological brutality emanating from (mostly, but not always) the women characters—to their husbands, to their children, to the other brutal women.  This feminine brutality is perhaps surprising to those who think that a woman author always defends—or should always defend—her own sex.  It is offset somewhat by some psychologically brutal males.  However, even while showing this brutality, Strout succeeds in helping us empathize with the characters.  We might not accept their actions—we might even despise them sometimes—but we usually understand where they are coming from.  Often it spawns from a great love or fear of losing love or fear of loving again.  As adept as she is in conveying this brutality, Strout is just as adept at using minute details, written in a reverent (beautiful) rhythm, at conveying loneliness:

And yet, standing behind her son, waiting for the traffic light to change, she remembered how in the midst of it all there had been times  when she’d felt a loneliness so deep that once, not so many years ago, having a cavity filled, the dentist’s gentle turning of her chin with his soft fingers had felt to her like a tender kindness of almost excruciating depth, and she had swallowed with a groan of longing, tears springing to her eyes.

It is in these painful revelations that we come to love Olive, despite her flaws.  She is not the only person suffering from pain revealed in quiet subtleties.  Here are three quick examples (each from a different episode); look:

The fact that their newly baked scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad; a soft dismallness settled over her.  The doctor had said to them, For three months you are not to even think of it.

But this turbulence in him was torture.  He thought how yesterday morning in New York, as he’d walked to his car, he had for one moment not seen it.  And there was that prick of fear, because he’d had it all planned and wrapped up, and where was the car?  But there it was, right there, the old Subaru wagon, and then he knew what he’d felt had been hope.  Hope was a cancer inside him.  He didn’t want it; he did not want it.

He was the only person she’d ever told that her mother had taken money from men. 

I was consistently in awe at Strout’s ability with language and style.  There was not a single time in the 270 pages where her prose caused me to stumble, and as beautiful as it was it never stood out any more than what it was saying.  It was always clear, painfully clear, showing the confusing beauty that is life.

22 thoughts on “Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

  1. Very interesting review, Trevor, and I do look forward to this book. I can’t help but observe that there are so few male readers in the novel reading world for books like this, that the publishers feel they should just ignore us. Fortunately, the blogging world helps us keep up.

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m also glad the prize world kept this book going. I doubt I would have read it otherwise. And that would have been a big loss for me.

  3. Barbara Glick says:

    Loved the book. I heard Ms. Strout speak at the California Literary and Prologue Society. I found one small error; the idiom is “to the manner born”, not “to the manor born”. I was surprised that an English professor would not know that. In all fairness, perhaps an editor changed Ms. Strout’s words.

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Barbara! I had no idea that the original idiom was “manner” and not “manor” . . . and I was an English professor. Very interesting. Can you elaborate on the usage? I’m wondering where and when was the first period of usage? I’m thinking that “manor” is probably used more often than “manner” now since “manor” is a bit less loose while “manner” can be used for several situations. I love this kind of stuff!

  5. The proper version of the phrase actually comes from Hamlet (he speaks it responding to the question “is it a custom?” from Horatio). I know this because I too used “manor” for a couple of decades, until corrected. We could claim that we are basing the “manor” usage on the popular BBC television series “To The Manor Born” of 1979. There is apparently stil debate (this from web discussions) about whether that was meant to be a clever adaptation or was simply done in error.

  6. Since you love this kind of stuff, Trevor….

    I’ve just remembered the debate that took place after the grumpy copy editor had called me over to correct my manor/manner “error”. His even crustier copy editor neighbor entered the fray, decreeing that, when properly used, not only were both versions valid but were, indeed, required, because they represent two quite different thoughts. His pithy (he was good at pith, I can tell you) example:

    When Diana bought the famous expensive little black dress, it was because she was “to the manor born” (i.e. all her life, expense had never been an issue).

    When she wore that same dress to the opening at the Serpentine Gallery on the night Charles was on television confessing his infidelity (thus ensuring she would be the Page One picture), it was because she was “to the manner born” (i.e. it was her custom to stick it to him every way she could).

    When his colleague argued that it was her “custom” to buy expensive things, the grumpier one won the argument by pointing out that it was well known that she bought her underthings at quite reasonable prices at Harvey Nicks. To this day, I am not sure how much pedantic revisionism was at play in the argument.

    And, since my copy of the book has not yet arrived, I’m not sure whether that distinction would rescue Ms. Strout or not.

  7. Trevor says:

    Interesting. I’ve never paid any attention to this phrase, though I’ve read and watched Hamlet countless times. Thanks for clearing it up for me. Now I can go around entering the arguments!

  8. My final confession is that the whole debate confused me enough that I have never used the phrase in writing since, although verbal use is obviously no problem.

  9. Rhys says:

    I am growing fond of Olive….I have just read Basket of Trips …the story I have enjoyed most so far. I thought this book was a novel for the first few stories…made the mistake of thinking they were Chapters…..

  10. Rhys says:

    Could I just say that because I am in the UK the time here is 11.20am and not 6.20am…what an unearthly hour…..

  11. Trevor says:

    “Basket of Trips” was one of my favorites too, Rhys. The subdued sadness and uncomfortable mortality of it all. It would be hard for me to choose a favorite out of the book, but that would be a finalist. Two others would be the bookends pieces “Pharmacy” and “River.”

    And I can, for the first time this week, actually, say that I thankfully was not awake at 6:20 this morning when you made your comment :).

  12. Rhys says:

    I am glad you were not awake at 6.20am…I am reading your comments about sleep….just keeping an eye on things…..I did like Pharmacy too ..it certainly got me interested..but it also sent me on the wrong track. I thought I was reading a novel…and I became very taken with Henry . I thought I was going to be given a portrayal of a “good man “…something I am very interested in …how to be a good man….but it changes tack….but one of the things that is very satisfying about the stories and which they do well is to convey a sense of community….something else that interests me a lot….thank you for mentioning this book …and no doubt your Saturday is going to be pretty busy…my daughter Susannah who is 30 ..(I was a young Dad) has gone to Paris for a few days, my elder son Josh (currently writing a PhD on Poetry at Kings London) is moving to a new flat today and then flies to Michigan tomorrow to give a paper at some University there and my younger son Daniel in Edinburgh has had a travel scholarship to go to Germany in the Summer…at last , do you know how many years I have tried to get these kids of mine to apply for travel scholarships…Lots of years…they take little notice….so I can sleep or read all day ….and this day will come for you too……..

  13. Rhys says:

    Well well look at the time today !!

  14. Trevor says:

    Today I woke up even later, Rhys. I’m sure you remember, but one of the best days of my life so far: when my first son started sleeping through the night. And we are just beginning to experience that with our second son. I am experiencing the joy all over again!

  15. Stewart says:

    I’m not sure when I would have read Olive Kitteridge (2008; Pulitzer), if ever, had it not been awarded the Pulitzer Prize last Monday. For one thing, the book is not marketed to me.

    Not marketed to you? Have you seen the UK edition?

  16. Stewart says:

    It’s here, since my attempt to post the image hasn’t worked.

  17. Trevor says:

    I did see that cover, Stewart. I’m not sure which I’d rather be holding in the train. Probably the North American edition, which I stopped feeling embarrassed about when I realized just how much I was enjoying what was inside.

  18. If you are inclinded to try All Souls on the train, Trevor, I’d suggest waiting for the paperback to come out — the hardover features a teenage girl in a bathing suit kneeling on a diving board.

  19. Trevor says:

    But Kevin, the paperback brings to my mind the clique books from the YA section. Oh well, I haven’t seen a pleasing cover of Oscar Wao yet, either. Or really The Road for that matter.

  20. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Wow, Trevor. I’m impressed. I had to look up the clique books to see if you were right about the cover. Are you watching Gossip Girl when I’m not around?

  21. It is true the paperback cover raises questions about another kind of abnormality. Perhaps you had best read it at home.

  22. Tina says:

    This book is the shit!

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