Atticus and Scout Finch. Nick Carraway. Mrs. Dalloway. Lucy Snowe. Holden Caulfield. Huck Finn. Paddington. Corduroy, Curious George. Amelia Bedelia, Nancy Drew, Lisbeth Salander. The list goes on and on. I have been collecting favorite literary characters since I was a tiny little reader, curling up on a deck chair under the big turquoise vinyl umbrella or wrapped in my favorite afghan at night, escaping into some adventure with these new friends of mine. Just when I thought my list might have reached its end, however, there she was, jumping out at me from the page, an unexpected find like a shiny new penny on a sidewalk: Olive Kitteridge, the heroine (or anti-heroine, perhaps, depending on your perspective) of Elizabeth Strout’s novel of the same name.
I loathed Olive (yes, we are on a first-name basis after traveling thirteen chapters together) at first meeting. Critical and chronically grumpy, she snapped at her husband, Henry, one too many times for my liking. Henry, on the other hand, struck me as quietly honorable, tolerating Olive’s outbursts and criticisms with a gentle patience, love and loyalty. I felt myself rooting for him, even empathizing with his becoming distracted by a young female assistant.
Upon meeting Olive for a second time, however, I felt my heart slowly soften. It’s a simple scene really. Seagulls squawking above an incoming tide. A car parked at the marina. Olive climbing in to the passenger seat speaking with the man behind the wheel. A rifle wrapped in a blanket in the back. In her clipped, no-nonsense manner, she mentions that her father shot himself. And I realize by the end of this vignette that she is more wise and soulful than I’d realized, for she has just, quite intentionally, prevented this man from doing the same.
Though my feelings for Olive fluctuated from story to story, I cannot deny that she completely captivated me. With every turn of the page, I wanted to know more about this seemingly simple yet complicated woman. One minute she is stealing a loafer and bra from her new daughter-in-law while the next she is showing profound compassion toward a local anorexic girl. At her son’s own wedding, she shows up in a tent of a dress she has sewn out of green gauzy muslin covered in a print of big red geraniums. Everyone turns their nose up at it. “I don’t give a hoot what you think!” Olive seems to scream in return. God love her for that.
From an unexpected adventure in a hospital emergency room one evening to a blouse splotched with butterscotch syrup, Olive blusters her way through life with a fierce feistiness all her own. Critical, judgmental, impatient, temperamental, she is Olive and nobody else. Completely flawed like the best of us, she also reveals incredible glimmers of love and generosity. A bundle of defenses, she also suffers shots of searing hurt. Moments of profound loss, loneliness, or painful realization, such as when she crumples in angry incredulity over the fact that her adult son does not view her as the idyllic mother she has believed herself to be—yet continues to call and reach out to him regularly. (And, kudos, by the way, to Christopher for finally finding the chutzpah to speak honestly to her.)
Bravo also to Olive, who may not drastically change by the end of the story but who certainly learns some lessons, takes up walking, eats her Dunkin’ Donuts doughnut holes each morning, and continues to speak her mind with “the passions and prejudices of a peasant” (whether to blaspheme a certain Republican cowboy, cocaine-addicted president or parents who take issue with their child being gay).
At my book club meeting the other night, our tiny, friendly circle discussed Olive for over an hour. We also discussed our own mothers, relationships (failed and successful), friendships, children, fears, old aunts, alcoholic fathers, and the question, “Would you want Olive as a friend?” Most of us winced at the idea. And yet…none of us will walk away from her easily. She dished out the most poignant, gritty, painful, human parts of life imaginable and left us reacting, thinking, feeling. We mentioned re-reading the book in another year or two. I, for one, can’t wait.