Book Review: Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge

The novel I overstepped my birthday with has been more than relevant. It’s one thing to whimper about getting older and the other – to get under its skin. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout skillfully conveys what it is to be in your sixties or seventies. Just don’t be surprised that it won’t bring you to an entirely different universe.

Olive Kitteridge is not a conventional novel with a continuously developing plot. It’s a compilation of short stories that circle around a town in New England with Olive as a center character present in each of them: sometimes it’s an episode from her own life but in several cases she is just mentioned or referenced in one and only sentence. However, if one asked me to describe the book, my answer would be derived not from the pages read but from the feeling that still lingers: goodness, empathy, self-identification.

Elizabeth Strout has written her novel from a genuine human perspective. There’s not much going on in a small town on the Atlantic coast, except the unique hostage situation at a local hospital, but minds and hearts of the local dwellers are no less complex and emotional. It’s like a miniature reflection of the world’s preoccupations, only further strengthened by introduction of aged and senior characters.

Olive Kitteridge is a retired math teacher, known by most people in town. She’s not that visually nice lady who stops to pat a child’s little head, wipes the tears from her miserable girlfriend’s cheeks or smiles everyday and everywhere. On the contrary, she is rough and churl, capable of knocking down a man with a slaying phrase. But that’s only her coveralls. Deep inside Olive is full of empathy, love and gratitude.

“We all want to kill someone at some point”, Olive responds to a widow who finds out at the funeral her husband was unfaithful, and then offers to use pillow suffocation instead of a knife to kill his lover. I’d rather have her as my counselor than some mellifluous moralist who knows how to perorate but is ignorant about a human nature. Therefore, there’s that paradox: Olive is not a sweet magnet who attracts crowds but nevertheless, she is the one who miraculously always occurs in the centre of events and manages to handle them. Except when she’s in situation herself.

Always harsh and reserved with her kindhearted husband Harry and the only son Christopher, Olive truly loves them but cannot find the right way to demonstrate it. It’s her son who alienates her that bothers her the most, especially when he gets married and instead of living in the house that Olive and Harry built for him next door moves to California, the furthest he can get away from his mother. When he finally moves back to New York, the relationship between them doesn’t seem to improve much either.

And here we get to the major antagonists of the novel. Not to the particular human persons but to much larger and more universal phenomena: the youth and the old age. There’s always this confrontation with different purpose, conditions and circumstances. However, Elizabeth Strout doesn’t take sides and doesn’t oppose vitality against life wisdom. She actually settles for a draw because nothing really changes and young people do not know this. “They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again.”

Moreover, the young with their great desires and expectations haven’t realized yet that “before they were through, they would blame and blame and blame, and then get tired, too.”They’re all parts of the one and the same life, and getting older doesn’t mean your desires seize to shine so bright - it’s just the same you who start gradually seeing them from a different angle or perspective. Therefore, there are young characters in the novel who feel miserable and look troubled, and there are senior ones, like Olive, who have their own regrets but still don’t want to leave this world yet. Because there are so many days “unconsciously squandered.”

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