The life of Olive Kitteridge from middle age onwards, is told as series of chronological snapshots, therefore in this sense it is a novel. However, Each chapter can also be viewed as a separate short story about the community that Olive lives in. In fact some have been published separately in magazines.
In many of the short stories Olive is not the centre of the story, she may be just a minor periphery character. I lacked time to read each story separately, due to the deadline of needing to have them all read for book club. Although, I had read them quickly, by the end some stories were difficult to remember and how or whether they linked were unclear therefore in the two days before book club I skimmed back to each chapter to summarise it. There had been so many characters I was not sure whether characters appeared again. If you too feel the same then below is my summary or if you do not need the summary then my conclusion about the book is below the summary. In particular I missed how significant Tulip was; if you only read one story out of the book; this would be the one to read as has the most in.
Looking back and also discussing at book club allowed me to see new layers that were, not so obvious first time round. In fact to appreciate the mult layers even better, at some stage I may even re-read the book.
The book starts with a story that is mainly focused on Olive Kitteridge’s husband Henry and his assistant in his pharmacy called Denise. Denise is much younger than Henry Kitteridge and at the start of the story married to another Henry. Henry Kitterridge wants to invite Denise and her husband Henry to dinner but Olive is not keen.
Henry and Denise bond over helping their delivery boy Jeremy. When Denise’s husband Henry dies, Henry Kitteridge helps her, for example teaching her to drive. Although Henry is clearly fond of Denise’s there is no suggestion that their relationship ever went beyond friends, perhaps because of the age difference Densie did not see Henry as anything g but a friend perhaps a Father figure. Olive’s presence is minimal in the pharmacy story; what may not be clear in the story alas becomes apparent later is during the story Olive has desires on Jim Cassey. Jim is Olive’s colleague he gives Olive and her son Christopher lifts to school where the two colleagues work. The story mentions Olive, stopping going to church although Henry continues the reason, for this is never fully explained; possibly to do with Jim Cassey. Jim Cassey dies during the story from a car crash, it seems the affair between him and Olive never really got going, but perhaps it would have done if he had not died. It is would be easy to miss but on p33 of the book, it mentions that Henry was aware of Olive crying every night when Jim died but he never acknowleged that. Therefore, seemingly Henry knew about Olive and Jim; I like that this is understated and not a big drama.
Again Olive is not the central feature of this story. The story centres around Kevin a former student of Olive who returns to the town apparently with suicidal intentions. Kevin and Olive talk. This story I found less impactful than the first,less multi layered. It seemingly is ambiguous what happens to Kevin, such an ending may have lifted the story. Or does it, does he reappear in Starvation?
Angela O’Meara plays piano in a restaurant that the Kitteridges go to. It is implied that the Kitteridges are regulars at the restaurant as Angela, knows Henry’s favourite song: Good Night Irene. Again Angela’s story was rather lost on me, I believe she was an alcoholic with unrequited love.
This is the story of Olive Kiterridge’s son Christopher’s first marriage. Olive Kitteridge wears gauzy green muslim with big reddish pink geraniums printed all over. The book says ‘she was big but had not always been so big’ perhaps this and mention of her comfort eating are a clues that she had let herself go after Jim’s death. Olive retreats to Christopher’s and his new bride Suzzanne’s bedroom feeling sad about her son marrying. Olive and Henry built the house she is in for Christopher . The story descends into comedy with Olive stealing one of a pair of Suzanne’s shoes to make Suzanne wonder how she lost one shoe.
Harman is married to Bonnie. He is having an affair with Daisy. He is in the routine of buying them both doughnuts; he gets them wrapped in separate bags so he can take Daisy hers then take the other home to Bonnie. Harman has a grown up son called Kevin who is newly married and his new wife wants children. Although even feels old with ‘a ring on his finger’ he does not feel ready for children; his Father advises him to wait,
Harman and Daisy become entangled in young girl’s life Nina. Nina has had a fight with her boyfireind Tim. Nina has an eating disorder. Olive becomes involved in this when she knocks on Daisy’s door collecting for the red cross. Olive eats the donut which Harman had intended taking home for his wife. Olive comments that Nina is starving and is concerned for her. Ultimately Olive persuades the girl to ring her Mum. Nina becomes like a surrogate daughter for Harman and Daisy and they eat doughnuts with her.
However ultimately, Nina dies.
Typong this form my notes, and thinking did the sucidal boy from Incoming Tide also die and suddenly realised his name was the same as Harman’s son; is it the same Kevin. Did Olive’s earlier intervention save Kevin so that he recovered and married? An interesting thought provoked by the book. Has anyone else who has read this got an opinion whether it is the same Kevin?
A Different Road
In this story Henry who is now 68 and Olive who is 69 get held hostage after what was intended to be a brief trip, to the hospital for Olive to use the toilet. However Olive ends up getting a check up and during this the hostage situation occurs. Henry argues with the hostage taker because of his strong language. Which leads to Olive apologising for Henry on p144 “Please he got that from his Mother. His Mother was impossibe.This starts an argument between Henry and Olive initially over his Mother then Olive mentions that Chris married a Jew and thinks that Chris stays a way for fear of being judgmental. Henry retaliates and says that is not the reason; the reason is that after Olive’s Father died she swampled Christopher’s’ life. Olive tells him to shut up then the hostage taker with the gun gets agitated and tells them to shut up. Henry wet;s him self. They hear police walkie talkies. Olive think’s the boy is about to kill him self so whisper to him not to then the police arrive en mass.
The story ends explaining how they would never get over what was said in that situation; although Henry tried to say they would Olive does not believe him.
This story seems rather insignificant and unnecessary, nothing really happens and the Kitteridges are just in the audience of a concert which is remarked upon by other audience members.
A lot happens in this story. After book club, I have gone back to reread this chapter in it’s entirety.
It is busy from the start where the Larkins are introduced because a lot of what is said about them is in Style of some random character reporting (gossiping) about them therefore lots is names thrown in quick succession at reader. After little about Larkin’s switches to Olive and Chris’s first marriage. It reestablishes Olive’s disdain for her daughter in law who provides menopause recommendations when Olive thinks it is none of her business. Suzanne also states surprise that Olive planted tulips every year at which Olive calls her stupid. This reference is where the title of the story comes from. Suzanne does not argue, just smiles which as p176 states “The girl smiled in a way that made Olive want to slap her’. Henry tells Olive not to speak to Suzanne like that, Olive’s says she will speak to her how she likes. However, it becomes less of an issue when Christopher rings to say they are moving to California; at this point they are 4 months into their marriage. Olive’s life is turned upside down; they are both now retired and therefore have time to fill. Henry takes up wood work. They both join American Civil war society. Olive buys one hundred tulip bulbs.
Just at Henry are Olive are getting settled again Christopher rings to say getting divorced although only married a year. But he states he is not coming back prompting Henry to spend tim going forward with head in hands. Olive states ‘Come on snap out of it…at least your not Roger Larkin, for Gods sake”. They continue to try and deal with it by keeping busy; including tracing family history. Christopher does not engage much with them when they rings and puts them off visting
Olive loses interest in preparing meals so Henry takes over buying groceries. On one grocery trip Henry brings back flowers, that are half dead. She gets Henry to put the flowers in a case, he then hugs her but she is keen to get on and plant her bulbs. A week later after Henry leaves Olive in car to run errands, he collapses.
The story then skips to when the tulip bloomed. Olive is lonely Henry can not speak and is in a nursing home. Christopher comes to visit but for less than a week; claiming he can not stay longer due to work. Being with people also irritates her for example Daisy who she had shared experience of Nina’s death due to eating disorder in Starvation. It is a card from Louise Larkin who was a guidance counsellor at school where Olive worked that gets though to her; it said “He was always a nice man; and I’m sure he still is”. Olive goes to visit Louise but, it does not go well. Louise compares her son Doyle to Christopher. Louise talks to Olive about suicide. Louise makes mistake of letting on that one of Henry’s nurses has been passing on news of him. A nurse Matt Olive considered to be a gossip because she gossiped about Louise. Olive had warned nurse Mary not to gossip about her husband earlier in the story. In anger Olive tells Louise that Mary had gossiped about her too.
Even after 2nd reading, I’m confused where it says what Louise’s son had done. It seems he did something to a woman. As Olive is trying to leave Louise gets agitated and tries to blame the woman “she was a cocktease’
Basket of Trips
Marlene Boney who Olive taught at school, husband has died. Olive goes o the funeral then helps with preparations for the wake.She goes because she knows Henry would have done, if he had not been in a home.
Ship in a Bottle
I enjoyed tis story. it is about a girl who has jilted at the altar. Olive barely features in, it just one mention because the jiltered girl’s younger sister had been taught bu Olive.
The title of the story refers to a layer of the story underneath the jilted at the altar story. The step Father of the jilted girl and Father of her sister is building a boat in the basement; when it is finished it is not certain whether it will be possible to get it out of the basement so it may have to remain; there for ever like a ship in a bottle.
A story where Olive actually features strongly and hence this was one of the most memorable stories for me because, it seemed more relevant to the novel,. Her son Christopher has remarried. His new wife is pregnant with their child and has two young children from a previous relationship. Suggesting Olive is not used to leaving her community and hence why she is so well known in her community, shew struggles to cope with going through security procedures each times she has to on her journey to and from Christopher’s
The visit initially seems to go relatively well. There is enough grit to the story to show that it is no pink tinged dream; there is tension.
Olive is disturbed find out that Christopher’s lodger is her former potential lover Jim’s son. Nothing really comes of Olive seeing Jim’s son. I like that this is far subtler than sa soap opera when the son, would have featured in the story as a trigger to dramatic scenes perhaps revelations about the affair. People can come back from past lives which cause disconsertion but ultimately it is just lived with.In this story it describes how Olive initially met Jim at a town meeting. Jim and her keep catching each other’s eyes throughout the meeting. On p265 it reads “She had the sensation she had been seen. And she had not even known she felt invisible”. On the same page Jim asks if she would leave with him, if he asked and Olive says yes. On the next page Jim say’s “Perhaps a good thing I haven’t asked you”. It seems although nothing physically happened between them there was an undercurrent; a potential that something might; but then Jim died. Back in the present of the story Christopher claims not to know or care whether their lodger is Jim’s son.
Olive’s visit is cut short when she gets offended by something minor. I think she initially intended just to threaten to leave, but Christopher does not give into emotional blackmail and deals with it calmly and refuses to take her to the airport so she has to make her own way there.
After becoming more acquainted with Olive in previous story; this one I’m not really sure where she fits in. Is Rebecca in the story another former pupil? Rebecca steals a magazine from the doctor, buys a shirt from her Father and does Rebecca turn into an arsonist? I’m not sure as knowing there were not many pages left I wanted to learn more about Olive.
This is the final story, in many ways loose ends do not get tied up. Olive is now a widow she regularly gets up early and walks along the river; but the Strout does not use this as a device for her to reflect on her life. Instead Olive grows to know a man that she originally finds collapsed on the river bank and helps. They go out for lunch and Olive is reluctant to get to know him but later has a change of heart. Therefore at the end of the book it seems like olive is about to start a new chapter in her life.
At point I get confused by this book and some felt irrelevant. But I think it is a great concept, giving snapshots of someone’s life may think they are central to their story but they are also at the periphery of other people’s stories, as this book shows.
Olive seems very much part of her community, from her issues with severity when visiting Christopher, I wonder whether she ever left much. Certainly, she wanted her son to stay there, she had even with Henry built the house Christopher initially lived in alone then with his first wife Suzanne. Despite in the security story, stating she felt invisible, she was actually visible to many people being a school teacher and although she gave up going to church she still collected for the red cross. It seems like the Kitteridge’s were well known in the community they frequented restaurants where they were recognised, in Winter Concert their presence is remarked upon, in Ship in a bottle her former pupil remembers her.
The book is not Olive’s whole life, it starts in middle age. Some at book club would have liked to have had a story about how Henry and Olive met to give context. Conversely for me starting the book later in life, than many such books would have done differentiated the book. The book shows a lot can happen from middle life on. In Olive’s case her potential lover dies, She builds a house for her son, her son marries twice, she talks to suicidal Kevin, she offers help to Nina but ultimately has to live with her dying, she is held hostage and potentially prevents hostage taker killing himself, her husband becomes debilitated and subsequently dies and at the end of the book she has the chance of a new partnership.
So unusual to know so little about the title character of a book by the time it is finished; left thinking what clues there were but this is so great; I have read the book, flicked through to summarise, flicked back some more and thought more whilst writing this (the book is looking well thumbed) and may read again; it is not going to the charity shop. Some book club books I read because they are not what I would normally read, I struggle to engage with and they are soon in the charity bag. Currently I’m reading for book club The history of seven killings; I say reading but, many pages are being skipped and I’m not revising it further because spending enough time on it.
From other reviews I have read people do not seem to have liked Olive’s character much. I think she is well rounded, not a perfect person but real and therefore engaging. Her students obviously respected her and the book includes three men who more than liked her. I do include Henry as one of those three; yes they squabbled , but he did want to protect her in hostage situation and he suspected she had cheated on him with Jim yet did not give her grief about it. At times when she did not want to cook because she was upset about Jim, he cooked for her. Some people seem to think of Henry as a hero but was he? Was it Henry that had driven Christopher away because being a church goer he disapproved of Christopher marrying a Jew? Perhaps Olive did swamp her son but, that is at worse misguided. She is a woman with opinions; nothing wrong with that. Really there is it enough to judge her on; in this thought provoking book. Apparently HBO turned the book into a 4 part series; I would be interested to see how they interpreted the book. Has anyone watched the series?