Elizabeth Strout (2008) – Olive Kitteridge

First impressions:  Chapter 1.  Pharmacy.


Our introduction to Olive Kitteridge is inauspicious.  She comes across as very angry and her maxim seems to be: If you can’t say something nasty, don’t say anything at all.  Her anger is channeled through passive aggressive outbursts that are ostensibly directed against others, but are clearly directed at her husband Henry Kitteridge.  Henry is not deep.  There is not much passion in his everyday life.  We don’t know what Olive is so angry about, but it doesn’t take much to set her off.


Eric Berne, the neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, used to say that some people save up their disappointments and dissatisfactions like stamps, and when they have collected enough of them, they feel entitled to explode at the next little annoyance they encounter.  When they explode, their response is far out of proportion to what the actual incident might merit, and the ostensible target of the explosion is generally not the real target..  This is Olive Kitteridge.  In his 1964 book Games People Play, Berne describes the game Olive Kitteridge plays continually.  He calls it “Now I’ve Got You, You Sonofabitch”, in which the player lies in wait for someone—anyone (so it usually turns out to be someone close)—to make a misstep and then pounces viciously, but with smug, self-satisfied, self-proclaimed complete justification and plausible deniability.


A perfect example (p.24), even if the situation is a tad implausible: Denise calls the Kitteridge home, distraught that she just ran over her cat. 


[Now I’ve Got You, You Sonofabitch]

“Go,” Olive said.  “For God’s sake.  Go over and comfort your girlfriend.”

“Stop it, Olive,” Henry said.  “That’s unnecessary….  Where in God’s name is your compassion?” 

[Now I’ve Got You, You Sonofabitch]

“She wouldn’t have run over any goddamn cat if you hadn’t given it to her.” 


The prose reads easily and succeeds in building scenes and characters without a lot of the noisy hammering, sawing, and sanding that some authors can’t seem to do without.  A few deft stroke of the writer’s brush evoke relationships and situations that feel real—we grasp the dynamics of the characters’ interactions without knowing what exactly is behind them.  We fill in the motivations from our own experiences and expectations.  This is the bread and butter of the short story: rather than painstakingly building an ambience from the ground up, the author recruits recognition of cultural landmarks to evoke an automatic understanding of what is going on beneath the surface, so we know if not who these people really are, then how they really are.  Strout does it well.


Narrative tense jumps around to good effect.  The chapter starts in the narrative past (“Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist”), but after the section break on page 11 switches to the present, with the feeling it gives of watching a movie rather than listening to a story (“Autumn now….  Henry runs a comb through his hair”).  Then, back and forth between past and present: mostly past, but occasionally in the present, and eventually, a quick stop-off in the future at the top of page 29


“ ‘She’s fine,’ he answers.  Not at the moment, but soon, he will walk over to Olive and put his hand on her arm.”


The narration even goes into the present perfect as in the following remarkable passage just before the section break on page 28.


“Why do you need everyone married?”  Christopher has said to him angrily, when Henry has asked about his son’s life.  “Why can’t you just leave people alone?”


and the author, jumps back to the immediacy of the present, answers Christopher’s rhetorical question:


            He doesn’t want people alone.


A brilliant, one-sentence explanation of Henry’s character.



[You have to imagine that this is a footnote:  The use of the present perfect here reminds me of its use in the old Scots ballad poem Sir Patrick Spens (The Child Ballads: 58), and I noticed when I looked it up that it too jumps around from present to past to present perfect and back to the past.  Here are the first four stanzas.


               THE king sits in Dumferling toune,
               Drinking the blude-reid wine:
               ‘O whar will I get guid sailor,
               To sail this schip of mine?’
               Up and spak an eldern knicht,
               Sat at the kings richt kne:
               ‘Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor
               That sails upon the se.’
               The king has written a braid letter,
               And signd it wi his hand,
               And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
               Was walking on the sand.
               The first line that Sir Patrick red,
               A loud lauch lauched he;
               The next line that Sir Patrick red,
               The teir blinded his ee.


End of would-be footnote.]


Further Thoughts:


Olive makes me think of the eponymous protagonist of Evan S. Connell’s (1969) novel Mr. Bridge as he would have behaved on amphetamines and out of control.  Olive has at least a walk-on part in every chapter, sometimes a starring role, and sometimes a supporting role (even Olive is supportive sometimes). 


Everything is a little off-kilter and nearly every chapter (maybe every chapter) has a kind of ominous, obsessive, telltale-heart horror or overwhelming sadness lurking inches below the surface of the text.  Henry David Thoreau (1854, Walden) observed that “The mass of men [by which, of course he meant pretty much all people] live lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”


This is, first and foremost, a book about the walking wounded.  The core themes of the novel are all interrelated:


            Emotional abandonment.


            Searching for validation.


            Defective communication.

            Dysfunctional families.

            Growing old.



            Humiliation.  Fear of humiliation.

            Resentment.  Rejection.

            Anger.  Displaced anger.

            Death: Suicide.  Attempted suicide.

            Murder.  Attempted murder.  Contemplated murder.

            Homicide.  Living death.

            Men are from “If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Say Nothing”

            Women are from “I Want the Truth If It Kills Me”


The characterizations are, to me at least, psychologically true.  They capture one of the saddest facts of human existence: it is possible to see that another human being is hurting, to have insight into why and how, to have compassion, to want to soothe the pain and make things better, and to be absolutely unable to establish the real communication that could make that happen.  It is the rare person in this novel who is reachable.  It is rare and precious when individuals in the book talk with one another instead of at one another. 


Overall, I enjoyed the book, if one can be said to enjoy such a prolonged insight into the unhappiness of people one comes to care for.  I’ll amend that to say that I’m glad that I read the book.  Still, I found Olive’s epiphany at the end of the last chapter sadly unsatisfying.  It feels abrupt—a short story ending where a novelistic ending was called for.  But then, endings are always problematical, aren’t they?



On the Hopeful Side


Henry, in spite of Olive’s complaints about him, seems like a decent fellow.  We never really know what kind of relationship he has or had with Christopher when Christopher was growing up.


Olive seems to have been and continue to be sensitive to and concerned about her former students and about some of the people she meets.  In “Incoming Tide”, her intervention in the form of frank and honest, sharing communication is enough to turn Kevin around from suicidal to hopeful, whence Patty Howe’s fall into the ocean turns him from mere hope to positive action.


The Piano Player, Angie Meara, for all that her mother was a whore has a real, human relationship with Walter and becomes willing to confront her life and become an actor rather than a pawn.  Taking steps, however small, in a positive direction is life affirming.


In “A Little Burst”, Olive’s emotional pain is understandable in the face of the fact that her son has gotten married to a woman she does not like or understand, a fact that underscores that he is no longer just Olive’s little boy.  It is understandable, but deeply regrettable that she acts out her dismay and unhappiness in petty and reprehensible ways.  Psychologically true, but still disturbing for its plausibility—we feel vaguely uneasy (guilty even?) for sympathizing with her in spite of the inappropriateness of her actions (stealing from Suzanne and Christopher’s bedroom a bra, a shoe, and an earring). 

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