I really enjoyed watching the HBO TV mini-series adaptation of ‘Olive Kitteridge’ last year and have been keen to read the original book by Elizabeth Strout which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. It is a novel in the form of 13 linked short stories set in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine centred around the life of the eponymous character during late middle age after retiring from her job as a junior high school maths teacher. Her gregarious husband, Richard, is a pharmacist and her son, Christopher, is a podiatrist. However, there are long-standing tensions in the family with Olive seemingly unable to communicate affection towards those closest to her.
There are many, many novels out there with thoughtful character development and astute observations about family dynamics, but what sets ‘Olive Kitteridge’ apart is the structure of the book. The short story approach creates a layering of pen portraits, so that the discontinuous narrative brings out the different shades of Olive’s character whether through everyday situations which emphasise the ongoing personal tragedies faced by Olive and her family, as well as moments of high drama such as the hospital scene. More often than not, Olive is abrasive and abrupt to the point of rudeness, but there are also glimpses of a lighter side to her personality behind the outward prickliness and the structure also invites the reader to fill in the gaps between each episode resulting in a cumulative understanding of her complex character.
A couple of chapters focus on other characters in the small-town community with Olive only appearing briefly in the background and these are slightly less engaging compared to the majority where Olive takes centre stage. However, the collection as a whole gradually shows how Olive is able to be more intimate with other acquaintances compared to her own husband and son, from saying the right thing to prevent her ex-pupil Kevin from taking his own life, while completely misreading her closest relatives. It also shows the perspectives of the various residents of Crosby who think they know Olive, but in reality many of them don’t really know her at all.
‘Olive Kitteridge’ is a fine example of subtle, character-driven literary fiction, crafted with care and compassion. A follow-up book, ‘Olive, Again’, is due in the autumn and is said to focus on the next decade of Olive’s life from the point where the first volume ends, and I am very much looking forward to reading what happens to her next.