The story of “Olive Kitteridge” takes the form of 13 short stories that go deeply into the psyche of Olive, a middle-school math teacher in the fictitious town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is the main character in most of the stories, a minor character in others, and just a reference in another. They all come together to portray a depressed, grumpy, sarcastic, unhappy woman married to Henry, the town pharmacist, who is Olive’s opposite - a kind, generous, forgiving, likeable man.
Author Elizabeth Strout
Henry knows how to deal with Olive after 25 years of marriage with a mate who is large, plain, and clumsy. He is long-suffering and learned long ago just to agree with everything she says. Their lives are strangely synchronous. Each submits to an attraction to someone else, with no dire consequences. Henry is infatuated with Denise, his new clerk at the pharmacy, who is newly-married and affected by the ebullience of her life. Olive is drawn to a fellow teacher with the same caustic view of life that Olive has, in contrast to Henry’s view of the world through rose-colored glasses. Olive also develops a friendship later in life with a townsperson, Jack, whom she met in the park as they both walked their dogs.
That is not to say that Olive is a personable, people person. Her son Chris calls her a bad mother; she is harsh to those she is closest to; she is sharp-tongued to her students who, for the most part, receive C’s for their efforts in her class. Her paranoia is obvious; she refuses to admit when she is wrong, she seems always to have suppressed pain, her mood swings are frequent, and she has a negative effect on those who must be in her company. Yet, she does save one student from suicide, recognizing herself in the young man, since her own dismal attitude has filled her with similar thoughts.
Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge
The reader, through Olive’s opinions, which she is never shy about stating, learns a great deal about the friends and neighbors in the seemingly quiet town of Crosby. No one escapes her harshness, neither her fellow teachers, her students, nor her friends and family. Underneath it all, however, comes an occasional glimpse of her empathy, but only if you are paying attention.
We all know people like Olive, and we definitely do not gravitate towards them, which increases their lonely outlook. Elizabeth Strout has brought to the surface an enigma which most of us avoid discussing. When a highly moral person flaunts her opinion and derides those who do not meet her lofty expectations, we tend to feel uncomfortable and steer clear of that person. That is how an Olive Kitteridge evolves. Her devotion to Henry comes to the fore when he becomes ill and must be confined to a nursing home. She seems to mellow as their life takes this unexpected turn. Olive visits him every day and holds her tongue even though it is difficult.
“Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. It is easy to see why Elizabeth Strout was given this honor. Frances McDormand acquired the rights to the book five years ago, which has now been adapted for television with McDormand as one of the producers as well as the actress in the title role. The adaptation debuted on HBO early in November as a four-part mini-series, already being mentioned as a candidate for an Emmy.
Elizabeth Strout has written three other successful novels - “The Burgess Boys,” “Amy and Isabelle,” and “Abide with Me.”