Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Intricate and Difficult/Wonderful Character: Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout did herself proud when she invented Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a retired mathematics teacher who lives in coastal Maine. She is married to a mild-mannered pharmacist. She is the mother of one grown son, a podiatrist. She is tall and hulking. Olive is about the grumpiest, most judgemental, most tyrannical, difficult character you'd ever want to meet. She is a real pain. Many people walk the other way when they see her coming. But you won't be able to stop reading about her.

Odd, how in a novel named after her, Olive Kitteridge is not directly introduced, as one might expect. Instead, in successive chapters we meet her husband, next a former student of Olive's, then a local cocktail lounge piano player, and so on. Each chapter is a jewel unto itself, being perceptive and deeply intimate portraits of Olive's fellow citizens. These other characters dwell in Olive's world and relate to her (or not) in their different ways. In this sophisticated way, Elizabeth Strout goes about building a picture of Olive. We see her through other's eyes until somewhere past the midpoint of the novel, the scale tips and we are more often with Olive, who is by now in deep existential angst.

Her husband is in a nursing home, barely communicative after a stroke. Her beloved son has moved away from Maine and married a second time, each marriage like a slap in the face to Olive. There was a moment in the eleventh of thirteen chapters when my somewhat disconnected feelings for Olive began to churn over. Olive is on an airplane, flying to see her son and meet his second wife and two stepchildren. She looks out the window of the plane and sees the beauty of the world below: earth and water, green and blue, the shining whitecaps on the ocean, and oh -- as depressed and down as she has been -- she dares to feel something she has not felt for a long time: "a sudden surging greediness for life".

Later, during this visit with her son, Olive has another epiphany. She begins to understand "just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed." As such revelations continue, how wonderfully their momentum tips Olive over more into the land of the living! She is no longer such a conundrum. When we see her loneliness, we see our own. We stop judging her. We root for her. We care.

I couldn't ask for more from any novel. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is truly a revelation.

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