Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Everyone knows an indomitable old woman. Most of us are related to at least one. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's series of thirteen related short stories (winner of the Pulitzer prize for fiction), shows us the world as Olive sees it and is seen.

I was introduced to this book over at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook and then found it as an audiobook at my library. Driving around and listening to it over the past week made me think of many formidable women I'm fond of but don't completely understand, chief among them my mother and my friend Helen, who was my stand partner at the symphony until October. Standing in the hot sun at Helen's memorial service this weekend, I was thinking about Olive, and about how little we can know of the adult life of our elders. When people got up to say something about Helen, most of it was a memory of what she cooked for a holiday dinner or some kind of good advice she gave. By the time an old person dies, there might not be anybody left to say something about her irreverent attitude and what an unquenchable spirit she had in her youth. We remember only the old woman who liked a good argument.

There might be something of a bygone era in Olive's emotionally-laden response to finding out she has dripped ice cream sauce across her blouse. She thinks it shows that she's grown addled with age, like an older relative of hers who used to spill on herself, and so she blows the incident out of proportion and won't talk about it. I've seen this with my mother, and I've seen it in Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Olive's dislike of parties also reminds me of my mother and Pearl, but Olive's willingness to talk to people who might need her help makes her unique. In one very low-key story, she talks a young man out of committing suicide so effectively that he dives in to save a young woman Olive has spotted in the act of trying to commit suicide. The interesting thing about the story is that you don't know for sure if Olive knew the young man was suicidal. On the whole, however, I give her credit for knowing more than she lets on. I like her, even as I discover more about the way she dominated her husband and the way she treated her son.

Her treatment of her son, in particular, is deftly shown so that her cruelty and her vulnerability are visible in their twisted and inseparable strands. She could no more have understood how formidable she seemed to her little boy than she could have protected herself from her own barbs. I felt so much sympathy for her, overhearing her new daughter-in-law's cruel remarks about the dress she'd made for her son's wedding and in which she'd felt special, that I understood the pettiness of her reaction. And I loved the descriptions of her large size, rare in a woman of her generation.

Yes, I identified with Olive, which shows the cumulative power of these stories. She is a large and hungry woman, a voracious person who continually underestimates the effect of her strong emotions on others. In one of my favorite scenes, she talks to a young anorexic girl about her illness, saying:
"You're starving."
The girl didn't move, only said "Uh-duh."
"I'm starving too," Olive said. The girl looked over at her. "I am, Olive said. "Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?"
"You're not starving," Nina said with disgust.
"Sure I am. We all are."

Although some reviewers call Olive "flawed" or even "grotesque," I see her as a larger-than-life portrait of the kind of strong woman I have always loved and admired, and who I ultimately expect to become something like. My hope, of course, is that seeing how maladaptive so many of her traits are will allow me to bypass some of the biggest and worst. Perhaps the line of formidable women can improve as it goes on.

9 comments:

readersguide said...

I think this is a good take on this book. I'm part way in (the rescue at the wharf has just occurred -- but was she committing suicide, too? I thought she was just picking flowers. I'll read it again) and I'd put it aside.
Does it seem to you that people's lives used to be more miserable, and that perhaps made them more miserable to each other? I'm thinking about some elderly female relatives of my own. Nowadays if your sister-in-law says something mean to you, you don't need to stew over it for 70 years. I think.

Matt said...

I enjoy reading your review. The book is so believable and truer than life! She is grotesque but many of the most ordinary people are just like her, just that we don't pay attention to them. I think as much as she wants to be isolated from people, she has a gift to really see them. She talked the young man out of suicide and helped the anorexic girl. To me she's one of the most memorable characters.

Jeanne said...

readersguide, yes, it does seem that life was more miserable during the Great Depression, which was a formative influence on my parents. And we don't tend to stew as much. I stew way less than my mother, and way more than my daughter. She's so practical, compared to me.

Matt, if she is grotesque but many ordinary people are like her--it makes her sound like one of Flannery O'Connor's characters! (And what high praise THAT comparison is for Elizabeth Strout!)

Dreamybee said...

Olive sounds intriguing. I might have to check her out!

Diane said...

I liked this book a lot!

Frances said...

"Grotesque" is not intended in the typical sense, not a negative commentary on the protagonist.

"In literature, a character or location that is irregular, extravagant or fantastic in form. When used as a device, the purpose is often in the style of expressionism, making the grotesque a parody of human qualities or a distorted reflection of a familiar place."

"In literature, when grotesque characters can sometimes more worthy than conventional ones, the intention is usually to point out that we judge by appearances, instead of looking for the personality beneath. This is a common device of fairytales, as in ‘Beauty and the Beast’."

Jeanne said...

Frances, good points. I tend to think of the literary grotesque in terms of Flannery O'Connor, but I'd somehow forgotten about the fairy tale sense of the word.

m denise c said...

I just read Olive and loved her and all of the interwoven stories. I will read the authors other two books, too! Such good writing!

Jeanne said...

I wonder if short stories are a better milieu than novels, for this author.