Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Completed: Olive Kitteridge

Dear Jenny,

Well, I'm 3 months late with this review (Olive was April's book) and I'm 3 books behind (May, June, and July = zero books) but I'm not giving up. So here I am! Honestly, I'm not sure I remember that much about this book, but I'm going to press on...

This is a book of short stories where the character Olive Kitteridge plays a part in every one -- as both a satellite character and the central figure. One thing that threw me off while reading was that Olive is the protagonist in most of the stories, but not all of them. I was constantly looking for some sort of pattern -- is Olive the main character in the first and last stories? No. In just the ones about the town she lives in? No. In alternating stories? No. I don't think I ever discerned a pattern. Not sure what that means (either the part about me looking for a pattern or that there was no pattern), but it's something that struck me (and kind of distracted me) while reading the book.

My general lasting impressing of the book: I liked it. And, more importantly: I liked it, but did not particularly like Olive. At least, not at first. And, even in the end, I'm not sure that I "liked" her. We have talked at length about the possibility of liking a book even when we did not like the main character... I think I have pretty much said, "No. Can't do it." but this book has proven me wrong. 

If there was a single story that made me begin to "like" Olive, it was her empathy while attempting to save an anorexic girl -- making a connection between a secret-doughnut-eating fat woman and a starving-herself-to-death skinny one was truly brilliant. Whatever is broken inside of these two women is, essentially, the same thing.

As I sit here thinking more about this book, I realize how powerful the writing is -- the past 3 months have been totally and completely hectic in my life, and yet I remember the suicide attempt story, the infidelity story, the story about Henry's assistent, the lounge singer's story... that's some good writing, to  stick in my post-cross-country move brain.

I was particularly interested in the continued story of Olive and her son, but now cannot remember how it turns out... did we ever find out what crime (or perceived crime) Olive had actually committed against him? Or was it just her perpetually overbearing motherhood that ruined him and their relationship (in his mind, at least)? I remember a feeling of "We're going to find out something horrible that happened to him as a child..." but then remember that feeling being unanswered.  (Did something shocking get revealed and I cannot remember it now?)

Since I cannot remember any specific dramatic event, I think the issue was just... general mom-was-a-shit issues, which leads me to the conclusion of... we're all damaged in some ways by our parents, right? The key is how we deal with it as adults. This guy doesn't seem to be dealing with it very well. Was Olive's over-protectiveness worse than any other item on the laundry list of mistakes parents make? I don't know -- it didn't really seem to me like it was. Maybe someone with a "perfect" upbringing would think it was? Perhaps that was the point -- most of us, at some point, think our parents are "the worst." And some parents really are -- but Olive, despite her flaws (heck, I barely liked her), didn't seem to be "the worst." But, again, perhaps I am misremembering and something shocking took place -- set me straight, wouldja?

What furthered me most in "liking" Olive was definitely her care and attention to Henry after his stroke. It also broke my heart and scared the living shit out of me. God, I hope this never happens to me. I guess that's an awful thing to say after, "Yeah -- we all have to deal with our shitty upbringings." I guess the message there is "Yeah -- we all have to deal with life's tragedies," right? (But if I could choose, I'd choose less tragedies. That's all I'm saying.)

Okay. I will now wrap up this wildly-careening review/re-hash of a book I read in the midst of one of the most hectic times of my adult life. Sorry, Olive Kitteridge. You may not have gotten the attention you deserve. But hey -- I did like you!

I am going to try my best to catch up over the next month or so ... I've been reading plenty of junk lately, so I just need to sub out TBR for junk (this helps: I unpacked my books today!)



  1. I loved, loved this book! Like you, I felt confused and kept looking for a pattern to the stories but eventually I just let myself go with it and waited for some underlying theme to reach my subconscience. I didn't like Olive but oh could I relate to her; her feelings of being slighted, how her best intentions are misunderstood, her jealousy and spitefullness, all the while so confused about why people react to her the way they do.

    I have grown children and there is such a bond (probably a very one-sided bond)that a mother feels for her children - its very easy to see how you could become that meddling mother or mother-in-law. It's the hardest discipline in my life, to keep out of their business and act sane when I have this overwhelming 'mothering' instinct. And to overhear a conversation where the new daughter in law is speaking badly about you, could be devastating. I started to feel that the various stories were mean't to help you get a better understanding of who Olive is and what could have formed her faulted character. You find out for instance, that the home she and her husband built and loved at the beginning of their marriage, and then lovingly GAVE to her son and new spouse was then not so appreciated and easily sold to start a new life away from her in California, very far away from her. It's all intertwined, the intentions, the reactions, the flaws, the misunderstandings and that is what I loved most about this book. I particularly love the scene where after hearing the D-I-L saying bad things about her at the wedding, she secretly ruins the girl's sweater and steals one of her shoes. It captures that feeling of wanting so badly to get back at someone when you feel so slighted. I also love how she captures how we all feel justified in our own heads when we don't behave well. Olive is in a constant state of trying to figure out why people aren't seeing it her way. She thinks she's a good person (and how true, as much as you think you are a pretty good person, someone else can think you are a shmuck.)

    I really didn't like Olive, but then again, I really did.

    p.s. Sorry if this is disjointed, it's been a year since I read it but it made a very lasting impression on me.

  2. Liz -- Thanks SO much for your comment. You reminded me of the empathetic feelings I had when Olive was misunderstood. I have had this happen to me countless times in life... saying, "But... but... that's not what I *meant!*" and just never figuring out the "right" way to get what I really meant across.

    The more I think about Olive, the more I appreciate this book. I may have to read it again when I am not in the middle of a cross-country move. Thanks again for the comment!

  3. I also really liked the book. I think Olive was an interesting character, and one thing I vividly remember was the layering of years. I remember thinking how a small slight, a small flaw, got magnified over time into something more more unlikeable.

    I should reread it, too. I also vividly remember some of the scenes you mentioned in the book. I especially remember the suicide story. And also that she one day she says to her husband, "I think I'm done with that sex stuff."

    I don't ever remember disliking her---but I got that she would have been a difficult person to love.