Olive is a kind of everywoman who is the link in this book of thirteen short stories by Elizabeth Strout. The stories span decades, with Olive’s age ranging from her forties to her seventies. We find out a little more about Olive with almost all of the stories, each illuminating another facet of a prickly, difficult woman who has her strengths and weaknesses, as do we all. There are also some stories set in her community where she appears not at all or only incidentally — walking through the bar in The Piano Player, for example. But every story offers a perspective on damage and loss.
In Incoming Tide, Kevin Coulson revisits his childhood home in Maine with the apparent intention of ending his life there. But Olive appears, his former math teacher from seventh grade, and invites herself to sit in his car, intruding on his solitude and asking penetrating questions. Kevin puts up with her overbearing presence, partly out of his childhood respect for a teacher and partly out of some remembered personal liking for the Mrs. Kitteridge who had not been popular with everyone. She remembers that his mother killed herself. She confides the suicide of her own father. They may be only delaying tactics, but perhaps they are enough to keep Kevin in the world of the living a little longer:
At the very moment Kevin became aware of liking the sound of her voice, he felt adrenaline pour through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure. He squinted hard toward the ocean. Great gray clouds were blowing in, and yet the sun, as though in contest, streamed yellow rays beneath them so that parts of the water sparkled with frenzied gaiety.
In A Little Burst, Christopher, the only son of Olive and Henry, gets married, Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law talking about her. Olive has worn a dress of “gauzy green muslin with big reddish-pink geraniums printed all over it.” She has gone to the bedroom that her son now shares with Suzanne and she hears Suzanne making disparaging remarks about her outfit to one of the guests.
Olive opens the closet door:
The dresses there do make her feel violent, though. She wants to snatch them down, twist the expensive dark fabric of these small dresses hanging pompously on wooden hangers. And there are sweaters, different shades of brown and green, folded neatly on a plastic, quilted hanging shelf. One of them near the bottom is actually beige. For God’s sake, what’s wrong with a little color?
Without any hesitation, Olive takes a sneaky revenge on Suzanne.
The sense of common humanity running through all the narratives in Olive Kitteridge is strongest in Pharmacy, the first and perhaps the best story in the collection. We see Olive only indirectly, since the story centres on Henry, a pharmacist and a gentle man, and his unexpected and undeclared love for the plain, much younger woman who is his assistant.
From Henry’s point of view, Olive is not an easy person to live with; she is angry and passionate. She seems constantly irritated by her slow, easygoing husband and she despises his mousy assistant. But there are hints that Olive has her own pain to deal with.
Henry daydreams foolishly about making a life with Denise, but his commitment to Olive is deep-rooted. His powerful, conflicted emotions become a kind of universal consciousness:
He loved her guilelessness, he loved the purity of her dreams, but this did not mean of course that he was in love with her. The natural reticence of her in fact caused him to desire Olive with a new wave of power. Olive’s sharp opinions, her full breasts, her stormy moods and sudden, deep laughter unfolded within him a new level of aching eroticism, and sometimes when he was heaving in the dark of night, it was not Denise who came to mind but, oddly, her strong, young husband — the fierceness of the young man as he gave way to the animalism of possession — and there would be for Henry Kitteridge a flash of incredible frenzy as though in the act of loving his wife he was joined with all men in loving the world of women, who contained the dark, mossy secrets of the earth within them.
“Goodness,” Olive said, when he moved off her.
In some sense, we are all Olive Kitteridge: we both experience and inflict pain; we can understand others’ problems and motivations better than we can understand our own. As we get older, the sorrows mount up. In a classic narrative, Olive would experience some kind of self-understanding. In the last story of this book, it is hard to say what Olive has learned. Perhaps she has just survived. But we have gained a beautifully-detailed understanding of an ordinary, complex human being.