With Christmas visits and trips about to happen this will be my last post probably this year. I’d like to write more attentively about Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel Olive Kitteredge, Pulitzer Prize winner in 2009, but as time is pressing this will be an impressionistic piece.
It’s a fragmentary novel in the form of thirteen linked short stories, each self-contained, usually about a different set of characters in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, but Olive and her pharmacist husband Henry appear in all of them, sometimes as peripheral characters, in others their story – their fitful, troubled relationship with each other and their son Christopher – develops.
Olive is a difficult, irascible, moody woman, but gifted with surprising empathy. The opening story, ‘Pharmacy’, is a microcosm of the whole novel. It begins with the Kitteredges in their prime, some time in the sixties when ‘the hippie business was beginning’, and ends near the present day when Henry has retired. Henry at the story’s start employs a new assistant, Denise, in his pharmacy, and falls passionately, platonically in love with her. Olive, meanwhile, is subject to fits of emotional ‘darkness’ that distances her husband and surly teenage son. We learn that Henry finds his workplace a safe haven, like ‘a healthy, autonomic nervous system, in a workable, quiet state’, away from ‘any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their house in the night’s dark hours’. Olive is clearly deeply troubled.
Henry is a long-suffering character it’s easy to warm to, with his perennially ‘cheerful’ nature, and his desire to make everyone happy – even his spiteful wife. Adolescent Christopher has some of his mother’s genes, for he snarls ‘angrily’ at his father near the story’s end:
“Why do you need everyone married?…Why can’t you just leave people alone?” He doesn’t want people alone.
The free indirect style throughout unobtrusively allows us into the main characters’ minds, as here with Henry’s. He can’t bear to see Denise or anyone else ‘helpless’; he wants to help. He needs help – and Olive provides it beautifully but, tragically, too late for him.
The story reveals that Olive’s waspish mouth and misanthropic impatience with people is partly the result of her own unrequited passion for a fellow teacher at her school. The couple never speak about their sorrows or pain, for in their own way they love and need each other. Christopher’s angst, as the other stories unfold, is also explained by his frustration with his mother and her stifling love.
I’d like to say much more about the other stories – maybe I’ll return to them in the new year. All I have time for here, then, is this: a unifying motif or theme is the damaging effect that mothers have on their children. In ‘Pharmacy’ we learn that Henry’s mother had two ‘nervous breakdowns’ and had otherwise cared for him ‘with stridency’ – a word that suits Olive’s maternal style; Henry has to restrain her from giving Christopher too hard a time, and at one point she admits she used to hit him – not smack, hit. Yet her love for her only son almost overwhelms her, and she’s devastated when he moves away from New England with his first wife to live in California; it’s pretty obvious that Olive’s antipathy towards her daughter-in-law is reciprocated, and that Suzanne insisted on leaving. Christopher would not have resisted; when they divorce, he stays out west, and rarely even visits his parents. Tough love hasn’t worked for him.
When pharmacy assistant Denise’s husband dies, Henry cares tenderly for her. Olive is scathing in her dismissal of ‘mousy’ Denise – largely because she’s aware that her transparent husband has feelings for her. Olive acidly observes that at first she couldn’t see why Denise’s husband (also Henry) had married her, until she saw young Henry’s mother at his funeral.
“…he married his mother. Men do.” After a pause. “Except for you.”
It’s typical of the subtlety and psychological insight into her complex characters that Elizabeth Strout reveals in this way how the dynamics of relationships both reveal and conceal truths. Olive is no doubt right about Denise, her husband and his mother; but does she realise that her Henry, too, has married a neurotic, volatile, potentially suicidal woman like his mother? Such self-awareness eludes her, or she swerves away from it, despite her frequent, surprisingly warm empathy for and insight into other people.
In ‘Security’, late in the novel, Olive visits Christopher and his second wife, Ann, in New York City, where they’d followed their therapist (he’d needed one after living first with Olive, then with Suzanne; he’d married his mother that time; Ann is the opposite: vapid, colourless, but damaged in her own way; he’d learned his lesson). The visit is a disaster. Olive detests Ann, and says on the phone to Henry:
“They’re ok, but she’s dumb, just like I thought. They’re in therapy. She hesitated, looked around. “You’re not to worry about that, Henry. In therapy they go straight after the mother. You come out smelling like a rose, I’m sure.”
As before, she shows a startling flash of insight here, while at the same time seeming in denial about the devastating impact she’d had on both her son and her husband. The rueful self-deprecation morphs in typical Olive fashion into an attack on Henry’s benign nature, the opposite of hers.
This quiet, becalmed coastal town of Crosby, Maine (Strout herself was born and raised in Portland, Maine) is the kind that Stephen King might set up for horrific, supernatural mayhem to unleash itself on. Elizabeth Strout prefers a quieter, more insidious kind of hell – the hell of a woman’s seeing her husband suffer a stroke, be emptied of his humanity, and ultimately die. A mother’s realising that the son she adores has been so alienated and intimidated by her acerbity that he dislikes her.
There are many other broken, suffering characters in this novel, and suicide is often not far from their minds, but it usually manages to avoid becoming depressing. There is redemption for most of them, often in surprising places and people. In ‘Incoming Tide’, for example, Olive manages to quell a former student’s suicidal thoughts by revealing with sympathy that she knew his mother killed herself, as her own father did. When he rescues a former classmate of his from drowning in the ocean, we realise she had probably jumped, for she too had tragedy in her life: she’d been unable to become a mother. Their salvation is mutual, reciprocal, and the prose that reveals all this is meticulous and satisfyingly understated.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this multi-faceted, carefully crafted novel. I recommend it – but it’s a bumpy ride.