an a crabby, flabby old lady with significant bipolar downs truly grab a reader’s mind and heart? Absolutely. If she happens to be Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, born to live and die in the town of Crosby, Maine. A land of “slanting light,” for this 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner.
In Crosby, Olive’s husband’s take on his wife is often shared: “She had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” But to her ex-students she’s the retired teacher they’ll never forget: “She said some powerful things about life.”
Such a fraught, conflicted existence — and its problematic resolutions — is the stuff of universal drama. Here it forms a book’s compelling center. Though not always its focus.
For Olive K doesn’t fit the usual novel format. (If there still exists a “usual” novel structure.). In Strout’s inventive example, we find 13 chapters that are easily stand-alone short stories. Over recent years, a few have appeared in magazines as single shots. Yet of the total, Olive is the reader’s seeing-eye in only four. In the remaining accounts, she acts a simple side role, or even a briefly glimpsed walk-on.
Does this fragmentation diminish Olive’s force as core reference? Not at all. Mainly because the other nine Crosby cameos so forcibly echo her own bleak struggle with the tough business of living, and her tenacious endurance.
In “Incoming Tide,” adult, suicidal Kevin Coulson returns to his old hometown. Stopping the car by the high sea cliff, he considers again how he’ll use his gun to kill himself. By chance his ex-seventh grade math teacher parks next to him; and before he can scream “no!” Mrs. Kitteridge opens his passenger door and sits beside him. Observing Kevin gravely, she abruptly mentions his mother’s long ago suicide, then quietly confides that her own father ended his life the same way: with a gun. As they speak, a young woman dreamily gathering flowers topples off the cliff. Kevin dives in to keep her afloat. “Look how she wants to live,” he thinks. Waiting for Mrs. Kitteridge to bring the help which will save the girl, and himself, he is pierced by an exultant acceptance of this “insane…unknowable world.”
Add this tale to the other chapters in which she is not protagonist, and Olive and her tenacity are seen as through a prism. A round-up and rounded view. Through which Strout devises an anguished, complex, and terrifying portrait of one aging woman’s determination to keep going, year upon year. “It’s getting through life that matters,” she says. Do it. No matter the pain. And in our faulted lives, there is pain. Lots of it.
Halfway through the novel, Olive, at 72, makes her life’s sole trip, to New York City. To visit her carefully distanced son, Christopher. During the visit, she falls into one of her mad tempers; in response, Christopher forces reality confrontation. You’ve always had wild mood swings, he says. “Do you have no memory of these things at all? These days, they’d send a social worker right to the home, if a kid showed up in school that way.” He calls this therapy.
For Olive it shatters the one “memory” that makes her widow’s life endurable in a darkling, lonely land: that falsely glittery dream about the bonding love that existed between herself and her child.
So what will Olive do… what do any of us do when dreams fly off like dried leaves?
Olive’s ex-student Julie Harwood is left at the altar by a man who loves her and wants to live with her. But not in matrimony. In the midst of the ensuing Harwood family psychodrama, Julie sits, reflecting, until a flash memory comes: “I remember,” she tells her younger sister. “One day Mrs. Kitteridge said: ‘Don’t be scared of your hunger.’ I think most of us thought she was talking about food…but as time went by I think I understood it more.” Julie Harwood slips out of the house and onto a bus, to her Boston lover’s home.
Like Julie, like Kevin, like Olive, Strout’s Maine characters stumble, struggle, finally understand that love isn’t “to be tossed away carelessly.” For when that happens a whole life, day after day, is “squandered.”
When we last see Olive she is 74. For her lumpy, aged and wrinkled body, it’s time to start all over again-somehow. “You have to persevere,” she says. And she does, in a life-exalting surprise ending.