The abrasive, vulnerable title character sometimes stands center stage, sometimes plays a supporting role in these 13 sharply observed dramas of small-town life from Strout (Abide with Me, 2006, etc.).
Olive Kitteridge certainly makes a formidable contrast with her gentle, quietly cheerful husband Henry from the moment we meet them both in “Pharmacy,” which introduces us to several other denizens of Crosby, Maine. Though she was a math teacher before she and Henry retired, she’s not exactly patient with shy young people—or anyone else. Yet she brusquely comforts suicidal Kevin Coulson in “Incoming Tide” with the news that her father, like Kevin’s mother, killed himself. And she does her best to help anorexic Nina in “Starving,” though Olive knows that the troubled girl is not the only person in Crosby hungry for love. Children disappoint, spouses are unfaithful and almost everyone is lonely at least some of the time in Strout’s rueful tales. The Kitteridges’ son Christopher marries, moves to California and divorces, but he doesn’t come home to the house his parents built for him, causing deep resentments to fester around the borders of Olive’s carefully tended garden. Tensions simmer in all the families here; even the genuinely loving couple in “Winter Concert” has a painful betrayal in its past. References to Iraq and 9/11 provide a somber context, but the real dangers here are personal: aging, the loss of love, the imminence of death. Nonetheless, Strout’s sensitive insights and luminous prose affirm life’s pleasures, as elderly, widowed Olive thinks, “It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”
A perfectly balanced portrait of the human condition, encompassing plenty of anger, cruelty and loss without ever losing sight of the equally powerful presences of tenderness, shared pursuits and lifelong loyalty.