Elizabeth Stout’s Olive Kitteridge invites readers into the lives of the residents of Crosby, Maine, and most intimately into the lives of teacher Olive Kitteridge and pharmacist Henry Kitteridge. Oliver and Henry are perfectly situated in the town to observe, and to be observed by, other residents. Hopeful moments flicker through the fog of what is essentially a sad book—sad because people die, people betray each other, people come to the end of their lives wrestling with what defines the core of their beings. One story in this suite of interconnected stories ends with a bittersweet meditation that captures the book: “Because what did they have now, except for each other, and what could you do if it was not even quite that?” (139) But the book also reveals unexpected human connections and the beauty of old women, even the grumpy mean ones like Olive Kitteridge, who seems so easy to label and yet so difficult to nail down. What Olive Kitteridge does exceptionally well is to reinforce the connections among the characters even as the point of view and the setting in time shift with each story, so that even when previously introduced characters (particularly Olive) do not explicitly appear in a story, the reader knows exactly where she is, and can imagine an ever-expanding universe of relationships, memories, regrets, and tragedies.
Olive Kitteridge is, more than anything, a story of change over time in a particular part of the world. Maine comes alive in this book: the marina, lobster crates, Norwegian pines and lilac bushes, rivers, tides, isolation, and the proximity to New York and Canada all contribute to Maine’s presence in the story. There are references to and brief sojourns in other parts of the country—California, New York City—but they only solidify the sense of Maine, which seems, at least in this story, outside of time. Time passes over the course of the book—it opens with Henry’s story, a few decades prior to Henry’s retirement, and closes a year after Henry’s death—but of the trio of place, change and time, time seems the least important to Olive Kitteridge, and while the stories themselves could take place perhaps during any decade of the twentieth century, they could only take place in Maine.
Six of the thirteen stories in Stout’s book are told from Olive Kitteridge’s point of view. She appears briefly in four other stories and is mentioned as the former teacher or possible future teacher in three others. All of the stories are in third-person narration: the first story is told from the point of view of Olive’s husband, Henry, and the remaining stories are told from the point of view of a young man contemplating suicide, a piano player, the owner of the local hardware store, an eleven-year-old girl, and a young woman who considers criminal activity her only viable path through life—all of whom have fleeting encounters with Olive either during the story itself or outside the scene, mentioned off-handedly. Over the course of the book, the many facets of Olive’s character come to light, some contradicting each other but nevertheless providing a portrait of a woman who has affected the lives of many people in Crosby, often in ways she does not realize, acknowledge, or understand. This book could have been written as a straightforward novel, entirely from Olive’s perspective, but what readers gain from multiple standpoints is the sense of mystery, inconsistencies, and regret embedded in the lives of people so close and yet just out of reach of one another. This approach illuminates the effects of interactions and the holes in those interactions. Even so, at the end of the book, readers have encountered Olive Kitteridge from nearly all sides, been privy to her thoughts and fears, and witnessed her impact on other people, her change over time, from inside their heads, but she remains, in some ways, elusive and unlikeable, a grumpy old lady who elicits curiosity but only so much sympathy. She is, in other words, a human being, a long-time neighbor—known and yet still unknown.
There is no superficial closure at the end of Olive Kitteridge, and there is no sense of peace. The characters in each story do not bow out with any kind of perfect arc of conflict resolution; rather, each story acts represents an episode in the lives of the characters involved, an episode that is tied to moments in the past and that will be tied to moments in the future. Olive, of course, considers this:
Most people did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure. Maybe it was the purest she had… because she had other memories that were not pure… Who in this world, this strange and incomprehensible world, did she think she was? (162)
Readers come away from Olive Kitteridge and Olive herself with no sense of resolution, but instead, perhaps, with a sense of confirmation—that confusion, struggle, and self-interrogation are parts of what makes life difficult and the story of our lives worth telling.
Works Cited: Stout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. New York: Random House, 2008.