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  • Brett Willis

Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

There is a level of craft in fiction writing that transcends telling a story. It’s the kind of writing that is almost impossible to pull pat meaning from. There’s no “gist” or “message” that the author is trying to impart. The best way that I know how to express this type of writing is that it feels true. And not “true” in the average fiction-related sense of “is it possible for a grown man to jump between two moving boats,” but true in that I deeply understand the feeling that the author is writing about and I have neither dared to express it, nor heard it expressed by anyone else in my life.

At its very heart, this is what Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout achieves for me. The list of writers, whom I’ve read, that nail this rarefied level of storytelling are few. The patron saint of this sort of writing would probably be Alice Munro. She writes stories that feel as if they’re memoirs. As if they all somehow happened to her and it’s as simple for THE Alice Munro as committing it to the page. It is, of course, not simple. Other writers who stand out for me in the category of truth-sayers would be Leo Tolstoy, Larry McMurtry, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kazuo Ishiguro, and, obviously, Elizabeth Strout. I’m not saying that theirs is the best type of fiction, just that they are very, very good at writing stories that feel like real people doing real things.

Olive Kitteridge is a novel of linked stories, all of which, in some small or large way, feature the presence of the titular Olive. The first story I really got into, which is actually the second story of the novel, was Incoming Tide. Yes, I knew that this book had won the Pulitzer Prize before I started reading (the publisher didn’t try to hide that fact). But anyone who knows me knows that I am fairly skeptical of honors in any medium—so there is always that “wait and see” when I address any new piece of media.

And just in case you’re already thinking “yep, I already want to read Olive Kitteridge,” then stop reading this now, because this is where the spoilers start.

Anyway, Incoming Tide is basically a one-scene story. A young man named Kevin Coulson, who used to have Olive Kitteridge as a seventh-grade math teacher, has driven back to his hometown to kill himself. Olive, seeing him, gets in the car with him, just starts chatting, and won’t leave—though he wants her to, and even asks her to. She has intuited, through personal experience with her own father taking his life, that this is this young man’s plan. And her way of saving him is to simply not leave. Explaining it this way, it honestly sounds kinda boring. In fact, so much of this book, if synopsized, is boring. But it’s in the emotion, in the complex histories and motivations of each character, in the offhand comments that carry unimaginable weight, that this book comes alive. The beauty of Incoming Tide rises out of the details that appear: how Olive reveals to Kevin that her father killed himself; that Kevin was dating a bipolar girl who made his depression worse; how Kevin oscillates between feeling perturbed that Olive is ruining his well-laid plan and feeling this enormous, wild gratitude to Olive for not leaving. Then, from just outside of what my brain suspected was going to happen, the ending appears, both unexpected and perfect.

To be blunt: Olive’s life is not great. And not not great in a “her dog dies then she steps in a puddle then a biplane crashes into her roof” sort of way. It’s bad in all of the devastating ways that we wish our own lives were not. She wants her only son to get married, which he does, to a woman who does not like Olive and convinces him to move across the country to California. Olive and her husband go through a traumatic event that I won't spoil, because it's so nicely executed and unexpected. And as soon as Olive’s husband retires, he suffers a stroke and Olive loses the one person who could live with her. There are people other than Olive with problems in this novel: loveless husbands, spurned brides, anorexic teens, the list goes on.

Yet, YET! Despite the difficulty of life, Olive goes on. And we’re not spared the hard parts because the hard parts are the majority of our own lives. Of real life. Rarely do we randomly experience nice things. Rarer still do we randomly remember nice things that happened. Most of the time it’s me thinking about the time I peed myself in second grade, or lingering over the way I mixed up the phrases “we’ll back off” and “let’s just pull back” into “we’ll jack off” during a marketing team roundtable. But it’s the reality of the existence of a lot of bad stuff that makes the points of light, the hopeful or tender or cathartic moments of the novel, so very hopeful, so incredibly vivifying.

Also, Olive is funny. When asked if she wants a plate for her doughnut, she says “oh, hell no.” She calls people with mental illness “wicky wackies.” She has a large, imposing figure and has no compunctions about using it to bend the emotion of a room to her will. She is the type of woman who says “I’m seventy-two and I wear a size ten shoe.”

Anyway, the crux of this book is that it contains real people. The way that trauma can pile upon itself without relent and the way that grace and hope almost always come to us in unexpected forms. The way that we tend to cage ourselves up in hopes rather than appreciate reality. The way that time simply refuses to stop moving forward, no matter who is gone, who is still here, or how messed up we are.

I apologize for the dearth line-by-line examples of why the book is good. Normally, I jot down a list of impactful lines in the back of the books as I’m reading. But I legit had two lines in the back of Olive Kitteridge that I had marked, which would make you think I didn’t like the book. Much the opposite. In most books, there are these marquee lines that you know the author just constructed the entire paragraph around. Like the author was waiting all scene to huck that three-pointer from half court. And, let’s be honest, we all like seeing three-pointers drained from the foul line. Elizabeth Strout creates truth in a different way. Hers is an accretion of actions, where the characters say and do people stuff. Sometimes naughty, like when Olive stops in an empty bedroom to listen to her new daughter-in-law badmouth her through an open window. Sometimes deeply caring, like when Olive strokes an anorexic girl’s hair in a stranger’s kitchen, knowing that this girl will not get better, but also knowing that she can show her love in that moment ,nonetheless. These scenes unspool in unexpected, somehow inevitable, ways. And as they add up, the feeling is not so much of “figuring things out” like in most novels, but of getting to know people. Of adding more understanding about your fellow humans, specifically: the sorts of troubles they might be going through, unbeknownst to you and, most likely, their parents, significant others, and children. It is a book that illuminates the quiet ways in which we all struggle with some of the biggest issues. It’s a book about what it’s like to be a person.

So there you have it, my panegyric on Olive Kitteridge.

IN SHORT: Olive is a funny old crank who gets up to very depressing hijinks.

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