Olive Kitteridge Summary

Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge

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Olive Kitteridge Summary

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Olive Kitteridge is not a conventional novel. Rather, it is told in a series of tales – some more loosely linked to the overall themes than others – about the people in the small town of Crosby, Maine. Similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the novel appears to be a collection of short stories on the surface, but there is cohesion that runs throughout them all. This unifying element takes the form of Olive Kitteridge, who makes an appearance in all thirteen of the stories.

Because of its construction, Olive Kitteridge is less about its plot than it is about its characters and motifs, and how they fit into Olive’s life and worldview. At the outset of the novel, Olive has an intractably bleak worldview. A math teacher at the junior high, her focus is almost entirely on the day she will die, a day that she will welcome. There is so little joy in her, and she is so honest about the things that she thinks are wrong with the world, and with people, that readers may be uncomfortable spending too much time with her. The effect is heightened by Strout’s masterful realism. Olive is a fully fleshed-out character, she’s just not much fun for a good deal of the book.

Olive is married to Henry. They have a son named Chris. Olive’s moods, which at times look like the most profound depression and often cause her to act and speak on the edge of cruelty, are a major source of the book’s tension. Olive blames her moods on her “DNA.” While it is always obvious that Olive loves her family in some way, she treats them with frequent disdain. Henry, a harmless do-gooder, develops an innocent crush on a young woman named Denise who works with him at the pharmacy. Olive essentially rolls her eyes at everything he says, and his self-consciousness in Olive’s presence is always wrenching.

Olive also goes out of her way to interfere with several of her son’s relationships. For instance, after Chris marries, Olive takes a black marker and defaces her new daughter-in-law’s sweater. With little justification, she also steals one of the woman’s loafers and hides it. Why? Because in Olive’s head, the way the woman “looks” at her son, who is her husband, is unacceptable. She also cannot resist digging at the character of the woman, who already has two children prior to her marriage to Chris and is now pregnant with Chris’s child.

Olive also has a brief, platonic, but legitimate love interest as well. Until he appears and pays attention to her, Olive has always thought she was visible to everyone. It is not until the man truly pays attention to her that she realizes how unseen she had allowed herself to become. The man eventually dies after crashing his car into a tree, and there is a suggestion that he did so while drunk. Afterwards, Olive realizes that they had a genuine emotional connection, something she has been lacking.

The major shifts in Olive’s personality come when she begins to encounter the adults who were once her students. It is through them and the other townspeople – and the ways in which they fit (or crash) into Olive’s life – that Olive Kitteridge approaches its themes. Olive’s observations and actions in the aftermath of suicides, anorexia, love, casual sex, loss, and more provide only one viewpoint, but they prompt the reader to ask the same questions that she does. How do different people react to different struggles? Why is life so unfair? Is it worth doing the right thing if there’s no obvious payoff? What is the nature of family? How far should forgiveness extend – not only to one’s family members, but to oneself? How accountable is each person for their moods, and how much of emotional unpredictability may simply be hardwiring?

The canvas on which Strout works is as immense as Crosby is small. There are many, many characters in the novel. Strout accomplishes a remarkable feat in that there are no extraneous personalities or words, despite a multitude of characters that might make other authors cringe at the prospect of organizing and breathing life into them all.

Crosby is a town that readers will feel like they have visited by the novel’s end, and they will feel as if they know the citizens well. This means encountering people worth knowing, and avoiding. This is one of the messages of Olive Kitteridge: A town is not a place, it comprises the people who live there, and the character and actions of those people dictate what it feels like to live in any particular location.

Critical response to Olive Kitteridge was almost universally positive. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and many other awards. Strout was already an elegant, accomplished author, but Olive, published in 2008, shows her at the height of her powers.