Rappahannock Reading: Commonplace, complex ‘Kitteridge’

Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout
2008, Random House Trade Paperbacks

Reviewed by Kathleen Grove

This is the latest in an irregularly appearing series of reviews of books that are likely to appeal to or particularly relate to the Rappahannock reader.

Many of us Virginians have spent a few days, a week, or a month vacationing in the state of Maine. We all know or know of those who spend a portion of their summers enjoying the cool nights and cold water of the Maine coast — Kennebunkport may come to mind.
But do we know what happens behind those clapboard walls when all the summer residents and tourists head south? Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge satisfies that curiosity even as it teaches us about our shared humanity.

I don’t usually read collections of short stories; they don’t provide me with the same satisfaction that two- to four-hundred page novels do: novels that take me to another place, where I live for a while and begin to feel at home.

Olive Kitteridge, a collection of 13 stories, overcame that disadvantage for me by unifying the stories with a single place — Crosby, Maine — and a single character named Olive Kitteridge.

Strout guides us with detail and dialogue through the externally commonplace and internally complex everyday lives of the inhabitants of this small community.

In this way, though the setting is far north of Rappahannock County, the small-town environment may resonate with residents of our small villages. Olive Kitteridge, a retired high school mathematics teacher, connects the residents of Crosby as she relates to them as spouse, mother, former teacher, neighbor and acquaintance.

Because of her, we learn about the friendship between her husband the pharmacist and the young married woman who serves as his assistant. We meet the young man and former student, returned to Crosby and planning on suicide behind his childhood home. We listen to piano played by the no longer young woman in the lounge where the Kitteridges sometimes go for dinner, and, through the miracle of fiction, we the readers follow her home and experience her break-up with her married lover.

We watch Olive punish her new daughter-in-law by taking small items from her bedroom in revenge for her manner toward Olive. Paths cross and recross; Olive visits a friend whom we met earlier and meets a young runaway abused by her boyfriend who has sought refuge through the works of the friend’s lover. We suffer with Olive and her husband when they are held captive by young criminals and when, in the moment of crisis and imminent death, Olive and Henry share cruel truths about one another.

At a concert, the Kitteridges greet the school counselor and her husband as they cope with recently revealed information about his illicit contact with an old girlfriend. We gain glimpses into the private pain, the hidden love, the harbored resentments, and the unexpected kindnesses that residents of a small community cannot usually see except within their own homes. And on it goes until finally, Olive, the resident of Crosby, befriends Jack, the summer tourist, who retires to Crosby and whom she and Henry, now dead of a stroke, regarded as arrogant.

Writes Strout, “Henry did not always warm up to summer people or retirees, those who came up the coast to live out their last days in a setting of slanting light. They were apt to have money, and, often, a grating sense of entitlement. For example, one man felt entitled to write an article in the local paper, poking fun at the natives, saying they were cold and aloof. And there was the woman who’d been overheard at Moody’s store, asking her husband, ‘Why is everyone in this state fat, and why do they all look retarded?” (p. 252)

I realize as I write this review that Olive Kitteridge sounds depressing — it isn’t. Strout brings us these vignettes of daily life with sensitivity and insight and with skillful description, and we feel privileged to learn about these intense, private moments experienced by others. This Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction will resonate with Rappahannock residents and enrich the lives of its readers.

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