I don’t think I’ve ever cared about a contrary old sourpuss like I cared about Olive Kitteridge. She’s the common thread in the thirteen stories that compose Elizabeth Strout’s third book, Olive Kitteridge, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Like most readers, I’m quick to fall in love with the protagonist who may be flawed but is fundamentally charming, clever and/or winning: think Tom Sawyer, Emma Bovary, Sherlock Holmes, Holden Caulfield, Ramona Cleary.
Olive, however, is neither charming nor winning, although she displays very brief flashes of cutting wit. And yet she holds her own with some of the great literary characters. A retired seventh-grade math teacher who is curt, impatient and uncomfortably large, she lives in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, and has none of the warmth of her fellow townspeople, including her always-smiling husband, Henry. And yet, over the course of these stories, some of which are built around Olive and some of which she merely passes through, I ended up caring so very much about her.
Strout has a remarkable gift for character and setting. You ache with understanding when a father of grown-and-gone sons silently mourns their absence. You feel the stinging, salty wind coming off of the fishing-boat dock. And you recoil with Olive when her only child treats her coldly, even though she clearly wasn’t the kindest mother in Crosby.
I don’t want to say much more about Olive and her fellow residents of Crosby — you should get to know them directly. I can’t get them out of my head.