There will be plenty of reviews to tell you why Olive Kitteridge is a fantastic book. For starters, it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a SF Chronicle best book of the year–so some discerning folks love it.
More likely, I skipped it because I thought it was short stories.
And it’s just hard for me to get excited about short stories.
But this book is decidedly not a collection of stories.
It’s a book that tells one very important story–about Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher in Crosby, Maine–through 13 views by her husband, son, neighbors, and former students. Olive is central to some stories and anecdotal in others. But you get a strong sense of her. Olive is complicated, irascible and yet admirable at the same time. She is tough–in a sometimes good and sometimes watching-a-train-wreck kind of way.
But if I loved Olive the character, I loved even more the notion of Olive. The notion of Olive as a mother and a wife and a community member. You come to experience Olive as a woman in the sunset years of her life–but one that has the same longings, dream, desires and disappointments as someone a fraction her age. Through her and the stories around her, we learn about how delicate, but resilient our hearts are.
And then a light bulb.
Don’t we all think of our Mom and Dad as parents first and people second? How strange to think of them as people with depth, with real emotions. Olive Kitteridge gives us a new look on elder life. On the last page:
“What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know what lumpy, aged, wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or did not choose it. And if her plater had been full of the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked the crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.”
And yet here we are in our (relative!) middle age and the cycle repeats itself–I am a real mom, with real emotions and real questions about how to live my life….and yet my daughter does not yet know that complexity. (phewwww-thankfully.) But we also-thank god- have a long time ahead of us before we feel we have ‘squandered’ our days. While the book is a thoughtful meditation for the old–it’s a bold call to action for the young.
The stories around Olive can be dramatic–I am all for portraying the insanity of a small town, but wow, Crosby has more than it’s fair share of nut cases–but the central thread is the same:
“Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed.”
Olive Kitteridge is exceptionally well written and great fiction. But stepping back….this is a time in our lives to more deeply understand the humans who raised us before they are gone. The bigger door this book opens adds a different dimension to life.
That’s a big promise. ; )