The book – not exactly a novel – is written as a series of thirteen separate but interrelated short stories set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Each story focuses on a different character or family in Crosby but somehow relates to the title character, Olive. In some of the stories, Olive is a major presence, as in the stories focusing on her husband and son. In other stories, Olive is barely there, perhaps just passing the main character at a restaurant. Through the eyes of the various townspeople, we learn more and more about Olive, as in this scene, where Bob and Jane Houlton have come to church for a holiday concert:
The church was slowly beginning to fill up. Olive Kitteridge walked in, tall and broad-shouldered in a navy-blue coat, her husband behind her. Henry Kitteridge touched his wife’s arm, indicating they take a seat in a pew nearby, but Olive shook her head and they sat instead two pews closer to the front of the church. “I don’t know how he can stand her,” Bob murmured to Jane.
They watched the Kitteridges settle into their pew, Olive shaking off her coat, than placing it back on her shoulders, Henry helping her. Olive Kitteridge had taught math at the school Jane had worked at; very seldom had the two women spoken at length. Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology, and Jane kept her distance. In response to Bob’s remark now, Jane merely shrugged.
Through each short story, we learn about its characters, about the community, and a bit more about Olive. The stories are roughly chronological, moving from when Olive and Henry are raising their teen son to the inevitable challenges of old age. Through it all, we see Olive (and the other characters) learn more about herself and about life. I enjoyed these insights, like this one:
Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did.
Generally, I enjoyed this unique book, although it was a bit depressing at times. I understand first-hand that bad things happen in every life and part of life is dealing with these challenges, but I would have preferred a more upbeat view of life. The stories had moments of hope and optimism – and a nice ending – but there were also an awful lot of suicidal thoughts, infidelity, and yearnings for something different in this small community. All in all, though, Olive Kitteridge provides an interesting and well-written study of a small town and of human life, with all of its joys and despairs.
If you've already read Olive Kitteridge, you may enjoy this interview with both Elizabeth Strout and with the fictional Olive (but it does contain spoilers so best to save it until after you've read the book).
270 pages, Random House