I guess it’s because Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is now a hit HBO miniseries that this 2008 “Novel in Stories” popped up on my Audible screen. The book description, hinting I suppose at revelations about human nature, attracted my attention enough to download it. Also it was on sale for $4.95. With the number of audio books I listen to a sale price is always a great attraction. This brilliant collection of 13 connected short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 but of course I did not know that until I had nearly finished the book.
The stories are about the residents of a quirky seaside town called Crosby Maine where Olive Kitteridge is a retired high school math teacher and her husband Henry a retired pharmacist. The town is a little quaint, almost foreign, and a bit self-enclose; at the time it is a perfect microcosm of the current world. I guess that’s what struck me the most: how honest and realistic the characters seem. All are living outwardly ordinary lives and yet they deal with a full range of life issues, each specific to the particularly character and yet achingly familiar.
Olive appears in each story but to different extents and from various points of view. It is a bit like a camera zooming in and out and over to the side. In some stories see the world through her mind and in others she plays a small role or makes a Hitchcock-like cameo. Other characters seeing her pass by and having a thought or memory about her anchors the book.
Among the many issues the Crosby characters deal with two stand out: mental health and secret love. Suicide figures prominently. Olive’s quiet father killed himself and her mother was most upset that he did not leave a note. He’d leave a note even to run to the grocery store but not this time. In the story in which she reveals this, Olive is conversing with a former student, now a psychiatrist, who has returned to town intending to kill himself in the woods near his childhood home. Olive recognizes him sitting in his car outside a diner and on some instinct simply invites herself to sit in the passenger seat and chat. She knows something of his background.
This is the second story in the book and one of my favorites. Of course, most of them are one of my favorites. But in all I’ve read I have never quite seen the reasons the young psychiatrist, Kevin Coulson, wants to die expressed so clearly and with such pungency. We discover that Kevin’s mother, also a doctor, killed herself when he was a child, and after he left home for college his now-deceased father made no effort to keep in touch with him. Kevin has also lost touch with his brother who is living on the streets of Berkeley as a drug addict. All his efforts to find meaning and to establish a family life for himself have failed and he has become tired of the hurt, disappointment, and alienation he continually feels wherever he goes, so much so that he wants only to come home to a place with horrible memories but where at least he once felt like he belonged. This story ends dramatically but not tragically when a waitress from diner, a girl Kevin once knew, falls into the sea.
The initial story in the book focuses on Henry Kitteridge, Olive’s husband, and takes place earlier in their lives when Henry still owns the town pharmacy. It is the perfect place to start. We get to really find out who Henry is and the secret love theme is established in the story of his relationship with his young assistant, Denise Thibodeau . This story shines light and adds depth to the subsequent stories dealing with the marriage of Henry and Olive. An article on the NPR website by Eric Deggans is headlined “HBO’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ May Be The Best Depiction Of Marriage On TV.” I have not yet watched the mini series but I’m glad to know this because that is exactly what I thought about the book. Henry and Olive are one of those couples you see in town or at church or at work events who seem happy and solid. Other townsfolk in the book see them around and figure they are just a happily married couple,devoted to each other, true to the template. And they do have a reasonably healthy marriage.
But the question is this: is it possible for happily married people to spend years and years in love with someone else, living an alternative life if their minds? Yes it is. Not only is Henry in love with a woman he hasn’t seen in years but Olive is in love with a man who died in an automobile accident years ago, so much so that she is still thinking of him when she is 72 years old and widowed. They both know about each other’s loves and they don’t talk about it. It is not even a source of tension. Olive points to the annual birthday card for Henry from Denise on the table with a sort of shrug.They just keep having their marriage in the sphere where it lives.
Aging is another beautifully portrayed theme in this book but it is aging in the context of a rich history of life and love. I like how Olive is so accepting of difficult facts such as one’s husband having a stroke and one’s own time on earth drawing short. Also many of the stories deal with relationships between parents and their adult children. Henry and Olive have one son, Christopher, who grows up to become a podiatrist. Olive knows he has problems with depression and gets him treated, but it is only years later on a disastrous visit to see her son and second wife, that Olive has some painful realizations about herself and Christopher’s childhood.
All of these themes: mental health, family life, love, especially longstanding love, and aging come to life through the stories of many other characters. Some are dramatic: the son of one prominent couple in town murders a woman. Some are less outwardly dramatic: the piano player and local tavern, Angie O’Meara, lives a quiet lonely life, but the story of her inward transformation is a thing to treasure.
If you like books that really try to get to the core of what this strange life as a human is all about, you will like this book. It treats people and their problems with honestly and compassion but is never mushy or sentimental. The writing is fantastic: graceful prose and realistic dialog with plenty humor. I often found myself laughing out loud. And it ends on a life-affirming note. I am looking forward to watching the now Emmy award winning mini series and will do that as soon as I figure out how a non-HBO subscriber can get it.
Note: I listened to the unabridged Brilliance audiobook beautifully narrated by Sandra Barr.