Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge bears some striking similarities to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and might well have been called Crosby, Maine, where all but one of the stories are set. Anderson’s novel-in-stories is centered both on the setting but also the influence of the main character George Willard; in the same vein, Strout focuses both on the changes in Olive’s life but also on the influence of Olive on others’ lives. A major difference between the two books, though, is that George is a young aspiring writer, at the beginning of adulthood, while Olive is a retired math teacher at the end of it.
- “Pharmacy”: close third-person, Henry Kitteridge
The chronic tension is actually so foregrounded in this story as to present itself initially as the acute tension, but later in the story it’s revealed that there’s been a particular acute tension event that has led to Henry’s reminiscing about the chronic tension incident:
Acute tension: Henry has not gotten his usual Christmas card from Denise, the woman who used to work for him at his pharmacy years ago when she was just out of college. After the whole chronic tension story of their unrequited love is rehashed, her card does come, in which she tells him she had a scare where she thought she had some life-threatening disease but she didn’t, changing her outlook on life, and she signs the card “Love” for the first time–the first time their love is expressed outright.
Chronic tension: Henry and Denise were in love with each other but never did anything about it. When Denise was working for Henry at the pharmacy, her husband, also named Henry (and whom Henry K was very fond of), was shot and killed by his best friend in a hunting accident, after which point Henry K’s love for her intensified, but when the moment of truth came, he told her to go marry Jerry, the overweight delivery boy who had a crush on her (and whom from future Christmas cards it’s clear she doesn’t wind up entirely happy with).
If you look at this as the acute tension (since it takes up the bulk of the narrative), the chronic tension could be the state of Henry’s relationship with his wife Olive, who’s depicted in this story as pretty much not seeing eye to eye with him on anything (particularly church issues and how other people see them, and about Denise herself–the quality of her personality). Olive is also revealed near the end to likely have had a similar emotional entanglement with a guy she taught with as Henry had with Denise.
- “Incoming Tide”: close third, Kevin (no last name given); with brief scenes that also go into close third of Patty Howe
Acute tension: Kevin has come back to his childhood town to kill himself. Kevin is sitting in his truck staring at the bay with his shotgun in the backseat, ready to go (kill himself) after he’s revisited the house where his mother killed herself (which he seems to want to kill himself in front of?). Olive Kitteridge, his seventh grade math teacher, suddenly appears and gets in his truck uninvited and starts talking to him; at one point they directly discuss his mother’s suicide when Olive tells him her father killed himself. She also tells him her son Christopher is depressed. As Kevin is listening to her, at first he wants her to leave but then finds himself wanting her to stay. He watches as Patty Howe comes out of the restaurant and walks toward a cliff he thinks she must know is there (she’s going to pick some flowers). After Kevin wants Olive to stay–basically his transition to wanting to continue to live, or approaching that–they see that Patty has fallen into the bay (whose choppy violence Kevin has been observing, reflecting his mood as he listens to Olive (but also doing more than reflecting mood, coming to play a direct role in plot)) and Kevin runs out and jumps in to save her.
Chronic tension: Kevin’s mother killed herself when they lived in this town. Since then, Kevin has not felt loved by anyone and feels like he has no place in the world.
- “The Piano Player”–close third, Angela O’Meara
Acute tension: Angela’s ex Simon has come into the bar where she works to watch her play piano in the lounge, causing her to call the guy she’s been having an affair with for 20 years at home for the first time to break it off.
Chronic tension: Angela’s stage fright has caused her to develop a drinking problem. Lately the booze has quit working as well on her nerves. She’s been having an affair with a married guy she’s in love with for over 20 years. Simon was her only serious relationship before that, who broke it off with her because she was too entangled with her mother.
As it plays out, when Angela sees Simon in the bar she goes to call Malcolm to end it with him. Then we get the backstory about Simon, particularly about how they were both pianists, but he could never play with feeling. After she’s called Malcolm and finished her set, he comes up and asks her if she ever married, and she says no, and she asks what he does now; he’s a real estate lawyer. He tells her her mother came to visit him after they broke up and intimates she propositioned him for sex (Simon’s the only guy she ever told her mother slept with men for money). He then tells her he’s pitied her all these years, and leaves. Angie leaves the bar drunk, and walks home, and when she gets there her now ex-lover Malcolm is there, pissed about the phone call, and tells her not to do anything like that again. She thinks that some people might think her life is pathetic, but it’s not anymore pathetic than anyone else’s, certainly not Simon’s or Malcolm’s.
The Kitteridges only have a cameo in this when they walk by the lounge and Angela plays Henry’s favorite song because she likes Henry. Neither seems to have any direct bearing on the plot here.
- “A Little Burst”–close third, Olive Kitteridge
Acute tension: Olive’s son Christopher has just gotten married; Olive is lying down to rest for a minute in her son and his new bride’s master bedroom in the house she and Henry helped Chris build. Olive in the master bedroom can overhear people talking in a little cigarette-smoking garden alcove just outside. She hears Suzanne’s friend ask how she likes her new in-laws, and Suzanne says Henry’s a doll, then makes a comment about how she couldn’t believe Olive wore that dress to the wedding (which stings; there have been several references to how much Olive likes this dress) and that Christopher’s growing up as an only child sucked for him because of his parents’ expectations. Olive is infuriated, and takes a magic marker and marks a line down the back of one of Suzanne’s beige sweaters from the closet and folds it and puts it back, and steals one of her bras and one of her shoes later to steal so she can throw away and make Suzanne think she must be losing her mind a little bit.
Chronic tension: Olive is uncertain about her new daughter-in-law, though she’s also been worried about Chris winding up alone, so she wants to think this marriage, though very rushed, is a good thing.
- “Starving”–close third, Harmon (with a brief foray into Daisy’s close-third POV)
Acute tension: Harmon keeps seeing a young couple around town, and hears that the girl has a disease (anorexia, to the point of giving her heart problems). One day the girl, Nina, shows up at Daisy’s, the woman Harmon is having an affair with, because the guy dumped her when she got skeleton-sick and she had no place to go. They both try to convince her to eat but can’t. Olive Kitteridge shows up canvassing for some charity and when she sees the skeleton-like figure of Nina starts crying and says you’re breaking my heart. She’s able to convince Nina to get back in touch with her parents and get help. After this, Harmon’s discontentment with his life with his wife Bonnie intensifies. Though it briefly appeared she was getting better, Nina dies of a heart attack after taking laxatives to avoid putting on any weight. After hearing this news, Harmon declares his love for Daisy. The story ends with the question of whether Harmon will be able to survive the severe fracture in his life of leaving his wife.
Chronic tension: Harmon’s wife has stopped having sex with him and all his sons are grown and gone, leaving a chasm in his life that he starts a “fuck buddy” affair with a woman named Daisy to fill.
Craft elements: Harmon’s interest in the literally starving Nina reflects his figurative emotional starvation in his current life with his wife. His inability to get Nina to eat prefigures his potential inability to emotionally eat himself (that is, leave his wife for Daisy). That Olive can get her to eat would seem to signify Olive is capable of changing her own life, but this prospect is shattered when Nina dies anyway, despite the success of Olive’s initial efforts, foreshadowing that Olive might not be able to change her own life either.
- “A Different Road”–omniscient, but close to Olive Kitteridge
Acute tension: Olive bumps into someone who references the recent bad incident that happened to her and Henry, then she revisits the hospital where she and Henry were held captive one night. She goes home to Henry and tries to explain why she said the terrible things she said when they were being held captive, and he points out she’s never apologized for anything. He says they’ll get over that night and the things they said, but she realizes they won’t.
Chronic tension: One night Olive and Henry are held captive by a gunman in a hospital bathroom; Olive insults Henry’s mother trying to explain to the gunman why Henry said he didn’t need to talk so filthy, and Henry defends a praying nurse being held with them, prompting Olive to say even more terrible things about his mother, and she accuses Henry of being responsible for Christopher leaving because Henry was so pious and Christopher married a Jew (this is the thing that gets said that can’t get unsaid). (So this could also be the chronic tension for the acute tension of getting held captive, that Olive secretly blames Henry for Christopher’s leaving and the acute tension of being held captive brings it to the surface.)
- “Winter Concert”–close third, Jane Houlton
Acute tension: Jane and her husband Bob go to a symphony concert being held at a church (because the concert hall’s roof fell in–which is symbolic) where they run into some friends who randomly mention a time a couple of years ago they ran into Jane’s husband at the Miami airport. When Jane presses her husband about this he confesses he went to visit “her” when she called after years out of touch and told him she was dying of cancer. This changes the way Jane sees them and their idyllic retirement together, but she ultimately decides to stay with him because he’s all she has. (There’s a brief cameo by the Kitteridges at the concert before the Houltons run into the friends who mention Miami–Bob says how can Henry stand Olive, and Jane, seeing the expression on Henry’s face as he’s talking to Olive, says it’s because he loves her.)
Chronic tension: Jane and her husband Bob seem to be enjoying their retirement together after having put an affair that Bob had behind them–or Jane thought they’d put it behind them. Jane also knows things other people don’t know–like the daughter of the friend who mentioned Miami got an abortion that friend never knew about. In the church she wonders if there are people there who know things about her she doesn’t know. Turns out there are.
- “Tulips”–omniscient, then close to Olive Kitteridge
Acute tension: Christopher tells Henry and Olive his wife is divorcing him (after a year) but that he’s staying in California, where they’d moved, and that they shouldn’t come visit. Shortly thereafter Henry has a stroke that leaves him blind and mute and pretty much unable to comprehend anything. Christopher comes to visit only once. Olive goes to see Louise Larkin when she sends Olive a note, potentially hoping to comfort herself with the suffering of someone who’s better off (“a healthy dose of schadenfreude” as Louise calls it), but this is apparently a mistake, in that it doesn’t make her feel better; Louise probes at her wounds, like the fact that Christopher’s only visited once, which Olive denies, but Louise knows the truth from the nurse at the hospital. Olive tells Henry it’s okay if he dies, but then realizes this won’t actually do anything, and it’s up to her to decide “whether or not to plant the tulips, before the ground was frozen.”
Chronic tension: The Larkins’ son Doyle stabbed a woman twenty-nine times. Henry and Olive’s increasingly distant relationship with their son Christopher.
- “Basket of Trips”–omniscient, then close third to Olive Kitteridge
Acute tension: Olive attends Marlene Bonney’s husband’s funeral, helping with the setup (mainly doing so out of obligation to Henry), then feels alone amid all the woman (a former student)’s family, but can’t leave because her car’s blocked in. Marlene’s hard-luck cousin Kerry, whom Marlene took in, gets drunk and passes out, and Olive finds Marlene at Kerry’s bedside, where Marlene tells her she was thinking of killing Kerry, that Kerry told Marlene and her son that she, Kerry, had slept with Marlene’s now-dead husband. Marlene asks Olive to do her a favor, to throw out the “basket of trips” in her bedroom–a basket of brochures for trips to places Marlene and her husband kept saying they’d go on, even after he was diagnosed with his illness; Marlene is more embarrassed about this than about contemplating killing Kerry. Olive thinks everyone has their basket of trips, that hers and Henry’s was believing Christopher would give them grandkids who would grow up nearby, etc.
Chronic tension: Olive is completely alone after Henry’s stroke and Christopher’s not coming to help. She has found herself at this late stage in life in a complete state of isolation.
- “Ship in a Bottle”–close third, Winnie Harwood
Acute tension: Winnie, a momma’s girl, comes to realize her mom is crazy when her mom shoots at her older sister’s ex-fiance when he tries to come to the house. Then her sister Julie tries to run away with the fiance again, asking Winnie to cover for her, which Winnie does. But then her mother finds the note, realizing Winnie covered for her sister and chose to be loyal to the sister over her the mother, fundamentally altering their relationship, and Julie gets spotted at the bus station by an uncle and brought home anyway, so Winnie’s choice is made moot–or it having an actual effect is anyway. The choice itself still has an effect–see the fundamentally altered relationship with mother. Winnie’s stepfather, who’s consistently referred to as “her father,” is building a ship in the basement he’s claimed he’s measured and that it will fit out through the door when the time comes, but Winnie by the end is dubious that it will actually get out.
This is Olive Kitteridge’s most peripheral cameo yet–she does not appear physically in the story. Julie mentions having had her as a teacher and how she used to say intense things to the kids sometimes; she quotes: ‘Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else.’ This seems to be part of Julie’s motivation in trying to seize the day and run off with her fiance and get out of Crosby.
Chronic tension: Winnie thought her mother was someone to be admired, that their lives as a family were normal. Julie’s fiance tells her he doesn’t want to get married the day of the wedding.
- “Security”–close third, Olive Kitteridge
Acute tension: Olive visits New York to help out with Christopher and his new wife, meeting the new wife, Ann, for the first time. Where the first wife was “mean and pushy,” Ann is “nice and dumb.” They have a fundamental Christian living as their tenant above them named Sean O’Casey; Olive asks if he’s related to Jim O’Casey, a guy she used to teach with, and Chris says he doesn’t know, then says he is, then says he’s joking. Olive meets Sean in the dog park and doesn’t like him (but wonders if it is really Jim’s son and if Jim’s accident is what caused him to become a fundamentalist Christian), nor does she much like Chris’s new wife (who smokes and drinks while pregnant) and stepkids. She finds out Chris lied about Ann getting sick during the pregnancy as the ostensible reason for asking her to visit, which makes her feel better, like he misses and needs her, but when they go out for ice cream and she sees later that neither told her about a big spill down her front, she decides to leave. Her sudden departure prompts a confrontation with Christopher about her “capricious moods,” which turn out to be the reason he hasn’t really communicated with her for years. He stays calm during their confrontation while Olive weeps, hurting her even more. Chris gets her a car service for the airport, and when she refuses to take her shoes off at security (because her pantyhose, which she only brought one pair of, are shredded) she’s led away.
Chronic tension: Christopher has effectively cut his parents out of his life for several years, something that became even more painful after his father’s stroke, and didn’t even tell his mother he was getting married again until he already had. And, Olive’s love for Jim O’Casey, whom she almost left Henry for before Jim plowed his car into a tree (mentioned in “Pharmacy”).
The climactic confrontation scene here is especially well done–ironically, with summary. Then, when Olive is in line at the airport, that’s when we get snippets of the actual conversation. This is true-to-life–we don’t process things in the moment; it’s when we get a quiet moment to reflect afterwards, or the first quiet moment we get after such intense moments, that the conversation from the intense moment replays itself in your head, whether you want it to or not. We’re shown the scene of her processing, in the airport line. The processing is the important part, which is why the story ends right after that happens.
This is a story that really shows the power of the novel and the story–but perhaps the novel more so. This story by itself would be good, but it’s better if you’ve read the rest of the stories–it’s better if you know Olive better, and your feelings toward her are more complicated (and most likely, more sympathetic). We’ve been shown the ripple effect of Olive’s personality, how she’s changed people’s lives in ways Christopher could never have any idea. This seems to be the plot of the book, which is kind of tragic–the more Olive seems to be shown the cons of her headstrong take-no-nonsense personality, the more the reader understands the positive effects that even Olive herself can’t know it’s had. The tragedy is her believing it’s a bad thing when we also know it’s a good thing, though the classification of the effects as positive or negative is debatable/ambiguous–as in “Ship in a Bottle”–is it good Julie ran away with that guy?
-As they’re getting out of the car before Olive is about to see Christopher’s house for the first time, Chris calls Theodore “a little piece of crap,” and then when Olive gets out of the car, she steps in dog shit. This is perhaps indicative of her about to step in (as in be forced to confront) her own role in Christopher himself being a little piece of crap.
- “Criminal”–close third, Rebecca Brown
Acute tension: Rebecca Brown steals a magazine from the doctor’s office to finish a story about a guy who’s initially happy with routine but whose wife eventually leaves him because of that routine, then sees an ad for a hand-sewn shirt she orders for her boyfriend David (she’s quite taken with the saleslady on the phone she orders it from). She lights the article from the magazine on fire as she orders the shirt, then lights the rest of it on fire the next day when she calls to correct the order; the flame is bigger then, but goes out. When the shirt arrives she realizes it’s a shirt meant for her ex-boyfriend Jace, and that her current boyfriend David, who treats her extremely condescendingly and is a vain asshole, would not like. After she hears a guy get arrested at the bar outside their apartment, she takes lighter fluid out to potentially get arrested herself.
Chronic tension: Rebecca’s mother left the family for LA, where she joined the Church of Scientology and never looked back. Then Rebecca’s father, who raised her so strictly after her mother left that she wanted him to die (and even plotted to kill him by overstuffing him with butter), also died. But the real chronic tension is that she felt worse when the guy she was in love with, Jace, dumped her for another woman.
-Olive’s cameo in this is also peripheral, as in “Ship in a Bottle”–Olive was Rebecca’s teacher. Though “Ship in a Bottle” is possibly more peripheral, because the narrator didn’t even have her for a teacher; her sister did. But in that story Olive’s influence is more direct, as Julie seems to have Olive’s advice in mind as part of the motivation for the action of her running away, putting Winnie in the position of making the choice…in “Criminal,” this is all there is about Olive:
Besides, her Aunt Katherine made her anxious, the same way her math teacher, Mrs. Kitteridge, did. Mrs. Kitteridge would look at her hard sometimes, when the class was supposed to be working. Once she had said to Rebecca in the hallway, “If you ever want to talk to me about anything, you can.”
Rebecca hadn’t answered, had just moved past her with her books.
Maybe this is symbolic of what most of the town does with Olive…
-The Maalox: this is the medicine Rebecca takes for her upset stomach, the kind that requires a special spoon (that’s mentioned several times): “Maalox sticks to everything. You can’t put the spoon in the dishwasher because even the glasses come out flecked with white.” This is basically a symbol for her chronic tension, the loss of her mother–this flecks everything in her life, and has led to her being in the situation she’s in now–with a guy she obviously shouldn’t be with. The story begins with her at the doctor, and doesn’t reveal the reason she’s there; you might intuit the Maalox has something to do with it. Near the end of the story she returns to the doctor and tells him the Maalox isn’t working and he tells her there’s nothing wrong with her, her stomach pain is just stress.
- “River”–close third, Olive Kitteridge
Acute tension: Olive runs into Jack Kennison, a man she vaguely knows from around town, collapsed on the walking trail, and helps him up. His wife has recently died and they start dating. When Olive tries to express her misgivings about Jack’s character to her friend Bunny and son Christopher and neither seem to side with her concerns, she gets upset with both of them. She goes for a while without seeing Jack, then communicates with him via email about the mistakes she’s made with her son while he talks about the mistakes he made with his daughter. He invites her over and she goes, and he’s lying on his bed; he admits he’s scared.
She almost said, “Oh, stop. I hate scared people.” She would have said that to Henry, to just about anyone. Maybe because she hated the scared part of herself—this was just a fleeting thought; there was a contest within her, revulsion and tentative desire.
She thinks how you squander days and love when you’re young, and realizes she doesn’t want to leave the world yet.
A shorter summation of acute tension: How the development of Olive’s relationship with Jack, someone she’s both disgusted by and has desire for, helps her confront the role her own personal shortcomings played in the state of her life now.
Chronic tension: Henry finally died about a year ago in the nursing home.
The line from “Pharmacy” about something being wrong in the Kitteridge household offers the hook that subconsciously keeps the reader reading: the real plot here is figuring out what that something wrong is, and how much of a role Olive herself plays in it.