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A Review of Olive Kitteridge

Published on February 27th, 2016 at 05:47 am

By Grace Spanbock

Henry Kitteridge is a gentle, good-hearted husband, father, and pharmacist. Angela O’Meara is a quiet alcoholic who has let the world around her slip away but is shaken by a memory. Harmon is a workingman who lives vicariously through the younger people around him. Jane Houlton is a mother of two who discovers the infidelity of her husband while trying to contain her desperation. The Larkins are a family of three, tried and tired by mental issues and bouts of unhappiness. Marlene Monroe Bonney is a young widow, shaken by her husband’s recent death and the newfound knowledge of his affair. Winnifred Harwood is a young girl who’s selfish mother, rebellious sister, and passive father trap her in a birdcage of their family and home. Rebecca Brown is a kleptomaniac lashing out at abandonment and boredom. Jack Kennison is a wealthy new resident of town who no longer knows what to do with himself, but wants to find solace.

Olive Kitteridge is the sun that pulls all of these planetary characters together in the small town of Crosby, Maine. She is an aging mother and wife who believes she found an honest understanding of her world, but the real truth of the complexity of relationships and humanity is told through the 13 stories of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The small world of Crosby is a sample population of the real world, without type caricatures but realism and acuity. Olive is a seventh-grade math teacher who forges her way through life unapologetically. She is often un-compassionately blunt but believes her candor is the only honest way of living. This often upsets others, especially her resentful son, Christopher, for a childhood of yelling at him, and yelling at his father for trying to back her up, making him feel guilty for his father’s mild unhappiness. But Henry and Olive ultimately love each other and their contrasting temperaments balance well. Olive shows her unsentimental empathy for the grieving characters she meets when helps and ex-student re-discover the will and strength to live, and shows an anorexic friend-of-a-friend the complexity and pain of everyone’s life.

The matrices of relationships are often strung together with disillusions and secret feelings. Ignorance, naivety, and denial often plague the characters, somehow revealing the truth of human boundaries. Strout’s subtle yet evocative stories examine family dynamics, loneliness, and security. The tales are filled with multi-dimensional characters that are often not admirable but evoke empathy for the difficulties that life entails. The third-person narratives take on the tone and language of the main characters. The individuality yet fluidity within the stories displays the similarities and differences of the characters lives and perspectives allowing the reader to identify with them. Each character is defined by a complex amalgam of feelings, interactions and dialogues that produce simply the realities of life that are often difficult to self-identify.

The joy of reading Elizabeth Strout’s novel of stories comes from her ability to recognize true human emotion, flaws, and problems. Husbands, wives, mothers and fathers, sons, daughters, friends, and those who don’t identify by their relationships are each filled with insight and often, brutal honesty. And not only are the characters full of life, but so is the eloquent dialogue and illustrative prose. Olive Kitteridge is a beautiful stained glass window into raw human thought and emotion.