“Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.”
I saw the miniseries version of Olive Kitteridge, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout, and this is one of the rare instances that I’m glad I saw the screen version first. The wonderful actress Frances Mcdormand (always entertaining to watch) gave an incredible performance as Olive. A great many adjectives come to mind when I think about Olive. She’s caustic, domineering, and outspoken. Definitely eccentric, she’s the sort of person who provokes a strong reaction. The novel is a series of interconnecting stories; sometimes Olive’s a main character, and other times she’s in the background barely mentioned. Some of the stories are told from Olive’s perspective while others feature the lives of other residents in the town of Crosby, Maine. One of book’s underlying themes is mental illness; there are several characters in the book who show various signs of mental illness, and then there’s Olive. Is the jury out on the mental state of this main character?
So who is Olive Kitteridge? In Elizabeth Strout’s novel, we see Olive, a retired math teacher, who lives in the town of Crosby, Maine where everyone seems to know everyone else. Olive is a difficult woman. Respected by some, she intimidates others. She has many admirable qualities: she’s intelligent, capable, and confident, but to her family, she’s frequently monstrous because she’s so formidable and domineering. Yet at the same time, she’s capable of incredible sensitivity, but it seems easier for Olive to show kindness and compassion to strangers than to her husband and only child, Christopher.
The novel opens with Pharmacy which is an introduction to Olive’s sweet husband, Henry who works in a pharmacy in the next town. Henry is a steady, kind, considerate gentle man, and we get a view of Henry and his life with Olive when his long-term employee dies and he employs a very naive young newlywed, Denise. Denise is sweet and rather helpless, and at one point, when tragedy strikes, Henry steps into Denise’s life to help her. Olive warns him that “People are never as helpless as you think they are.”
Pharmacy shows the Kitteridges’ married life with Henry often hesitant to show affection to his prickly wife due to “a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” Olive isn’t easy to live with and her outbursts are unpredictable. One day, for example, Henry rather “uncharacteristically” complains when Olive refuses to accompany her husband to church:
“Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!” Olive had almost spit her fury’s door flung open, “You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher’s homework with him! and you—.” She grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night’s disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. “You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!” Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. “Well, I’m sick and tired of it,” she said calmly. “Sick to death.”
In A Little Burst, Christopher finally marries (he’s 38 years-old) and Olive tries to accept his bossy wife, Suzanne. By the end of the wedding day, Olive loathes her new daughter-in-law. The marriage takes place in Maine, and it’s a humiliating experience for Olive who can’t understand why on earth her son is marrying this woman–but it’s quite obvious that Suzanne is another version of Olive: so Christopher, in essence is marrying his mother. In later chapters, we track Christopher’s marriage and relationships.
In Tulips, Olive makes the mistake of visiting Louise Larkin, a woman Olive used to work with. It’s a strange meeting, and a rare occasion when Olive finds herself outplayed.
Olive is at her best with people outside of any intimate relationships. Living damages and bruises, so we see various characters who ‘cope’ (or not) with an array of tragedies and disasters. Olive’s past led to a wall–a wall of toughness which will not allow tenderness or a moment of weakness. It’s easy to see why she married Henry even though she thinks he’s “irritating” and has a “steadfast way of remaining naive, as though life were just what a Sears catalogue told you it was: everyone standing around smiling.”
The book is full of memorable characters, but, of course, the ‘star’ here is Olive. Would we want to know Olive? Would we want to be related to Olive? In creating of Olive, author Elizabeth Strout, with compassion and sensitivity, shows the many facets of one very complicated personality.
Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and ” little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well, a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.