Finally I’ve moved away from reading a certain kind of Australian fiction to a certain kind of American fiction. Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize with Olive Kitteridge in 2009.
The prize citation describes this book as a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine, but I would describe it as a novel. High school maths teacher Olive Kitteridge and her town pharmacist husband are introduced in the first story and their lives are interwoven through many, though not all, of the other 13 stories.
Olive is a blunt, difficult character who says what she thinks and often appears cold, but underneath the bluff exterior is a woman who bears a lot of hurt at least in part because her father committed suicide. She has a difficult relationship with her only child Christopher and her bad temper makes her hard to love. But love her Henry Kitteridge does, a man who exudes kindness and goodwill and can seem to do no wrong. But both Henry and Olive will develop relationships with other people, and keep secrets, that will quietly and ultimately hurt the other.
There are some really heart-stinging moments in this book, such as Olive overhearing her new daughter-in-law criticising the dress she’s worn to her son’s wedding and hinting at the trouble between mother and son that Olive is unable to face. And Olive’s refusal to take off her shoes when asked at airport security because she’d only brought one pair of stockings to visit her son in New York and they are now torn and laddered. The humiliation and internal struggle she feels is gut-wrenching.
There are so many broken characters in this book, shaped by their childhoods and life experiences, that its just thrumming with humanity. There’s murderers, deserted wives, the mentally ill, the poor and the lonely. The focus is on the minutae of their daily lives in a small Maine town and if I had a criticism, its that there’s not much light in their stories, though there is the odd bit of humour in some of their situations.
Straight after I read this book, I watched the four-part miniseries with Frances McDormand in the role of Olive. The show really brings to life the emotions that are conveyed in the book, but I think overplay a little the characters’ flaws so that some of the subtlety is lost. The writing is lovely and the sense of small-town Maine is very strong.