Who is Olive Kitteridge?
I imagined Olive as young woman when I first looked at my yellow edition. Call me weird, and I know I am, but there’s something youthful about the name, not to mention that the color of my edition’s cover gives a vibrant feel to it. So I was taken aback to find out that she is something else.
She is a retired math teacher way past her prime. She’s not too old to be in a nursing home. In fact, she is big, robust for her age, hardly inconspicuous, sometimes intimidating, not very motherly, not very nice. Quite your stereotyped math teacher. Although this book is entitled after her, it is not entirely about her.
What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. 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. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.
The novel is a series of related stories about the people where the Kitteridge family lives. There are a number of stories where Olive is the dominant character, and there are some where she is merely a random presence. One can almost imagine her popping through any door with her sturdy figure and her loud voice. Well, I always imagine her to have that.
Anyway, we see Olive from various angles through these stories. If a story is about a former student, we see the formidable figure of herself that she sculpted in the minds of her students. If it is about any of her family, say her husband Henry or her son Christopher, we see her more vulnerable side, her quirky ways, her strong opinions on everything, her unforgiving traits, her weaknesses. I think this is a wonderful way to tell a story about a seemingly ordinary character because it also gives the feel that it is a small town novel.
The writing is neat and crisp. I even got a little sentimental with a description of Olive’s son painting something on canvas. There is no problem as far as stylistic matters are concerned. I think one problem is that Olive, and the rest of the townspeople, are quite unremarkable. The feisty and impatient reader might find this book a drag and give up on it.
For why should we read about ordinary people who are lonely at their seventies? Of course, not all the stories are set during this late stage of Olive’s life, and not all the protagonists of the stories are lonely old people. But sure enough, there are more old people than the young ones. So yes, we get slices of each character’s issues: an ageing pianist who’s caught in a painful romance, a promising young student who’s already tired of living, Olive’s son who’s drifted further and further from his parents, Olive’s husband who’s being nice to everyone, an anorexic struggling for her place in the world, an old couple unearthing distant misgivings, an eccentric woman locked up in their house, former students and their adult lives, and an irascible man who surprisingly becomes friends with Olive.
The stories usually have something to reveal from the past to explain, and then to hurt, themselves in the present. And then what? Do we get a complete portrait of Olive after finishing each story? Perhaps a clear sketch, yes, that allows us to picture the grief gripping Olive and the people surrounding her.
And really, why should we bother to understand her when she doesn’t care? She is totally oblivious to what the townspeople think of her, but as each story unfolds, you begin to reassess if that is true. Perhaps she may care at some level, but we cannot be sure how much she cares about people’s perception of her. She’s an unpredictable woman, so that can’t be helped.
But this is what I always wonder about Olive: how much does she love her husband and son? Why does she always have to tell herself that she loves these two dear people in her life? What doubts are planted inside her for this reassurance to become a need?
And although Olive is a person I wouldn’t want to meet in real life, I think I understand her enough for me to finish this novel without that bit of exasperation that I feel for characters whom I cannot stand.