In 1954 Wallace Stevens wrote a wonderful poem called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Spare and haiku-like stanzas present vivid glimpses of life and nature. Here are two of my favourites:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I do not know which to prefer,
the beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The black bird whistling
Or just after.
The blackbird comes in and out of sight; it sits on the bare branches, and it flies away.
Thus, Olive Kitteridge in Elizabeth Strout’s compelling novel. The novel comprises thirteen stories. Olive Kitteridge is in all of them, but sometimes glimpsed in the distance, at others the central figure in a story about her life, and she is a powerful figure.
She is a retired maths teacher, married to a pharmacist, living her whole life in a town in Maine on the rugged shores of the Atlantic Ocean. She has one son, Christopher, who is a podiatrist. The local people are tradespeople, fishermen; one would think their lives would be fairly mundane, but the writing here has the quality of Greek tragedy. There is humour, frequently in relation to Olive, but sadness and loss. The loss of a lover in a one car accident, the loss of a son in goal for murder, the loss of a son who marries and moves away; people on the brink of suicide, older people fearing debility and loss.
Olive is intelligent but she lacks empathy. Or rather she lacks empathy for her close family members. She can’t seem to put a foot right with her son, and even though she adores him, she doesn’t show it. She has compassion and understanding for other young people who cross her path, and some remember her with gratitude. She does however have contempt for those she regards as ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid,’ words she often uses.
The first story focuses on Henry, Olive’s husband. A kind and generous man, he becomes fond of the young pharmacist who works with him. Her husband is also Henry. He invites them home for dinner. Olive is not a great hostess:
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ said Olive, when, in passing the ketchup to the young man, Henry Kitteridge knocked it over, and ketchup lurched out like thickened blood across the oak table. Trying to pick up the bottle, he caused it to roll unsteadily, and ketchup ended up on his fingertips, then on his white shirt.
‘Leave it,’ Olive commanded. standing up, ‘Just leave it alone Henry. For God’s sake.’…
For dessert they were each handed a blue bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sliding in its centre.
Olive is a big woman, turning to fat in retirement, but she still walks her six miles a day along the river with her dog. She and Henry go shopping together, have coffee and doughnuts, but one day he plunges to the ground in a severe stroke and never comes home again. Olive visits him every day, but becomes infuriated if people offer her sympathy, which she sees as pity.
She is a contradiction; a woman who can be deeply kind to the point of preventing a young former pupil from committing suicide, yet also a woman who smacks her two-year old son for touching a flower. She has no insight into the way she has treated him or the way he feels about her.
One of my favourite scenes takes place when Olive is at her son’s wedding, lying down to rest for a while, but able to hear conversations outside the window. She is feeling particularly pleased about the dress she is wearing.
Olive’s dress…is made from gauzy green muslin with big reddish-pink geraniums printed all over it, and she has to arrange herself carefully on the bed so it won’t wind up all wrinkly…Olive is a big person… But at this stage of the game she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat, dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage. But the dress worked out well… Much better than the dark grim clothes the Bernstein family is wearing.
But as she lies there, she hears Suzanne, her new daughter-in-law, in conversation with a friend. They are discussing her new in-laws. Henry, her father-in-law she describes as a ‘doll’ The voices are lowered, then she hears Suzanne:
‘Oh, God, yes,’ says Suzanne, her quiet words suddenly distinct.’ I couldn’t believe it. I mean that she would really wear it.’
And then, even worse, she goes on to say of Chris, Olive’s beloved son,
‘He’s had a hard time you know. And being an only child-that really sucked for him.’
And Olive is her enemy for life. She gains a little satisfaction from stealing some of Suzanne’s clothes. But how she hates the woman and calls her a know-all.
Olive proud, unreasonable, such a know-all herself she will even have an argument with Henry when they are held hostage in a hold up; she sees the good in some people and only the bad in others. About herself she lacks insight and when it suddenly leaks in, she is devastated.
Although this book concerns itself with the people of middle-America it is fair to say, all of life is here. Acts of petty meanness, and heroic acts of kindness, foolish delusions and deep understanding. Olive Kitteridge has some element of us all.
A wonderfully satisfying work and well worthy of its Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Another inspiring book with an old woman as protagonist.