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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Olive Kitteridge

This week, a new book, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, published in 2008. Ms. Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive, and HBO based a four-part miniseries on the story that appeared in 2014. (Worth watching—a fine adaptation).

I first read Olive after seeing the miniseries in 2014 and subsequently read all of Elizabeth Strout’s books. As often happens, it’s hard not to picture the story’s characters represented by the actors in the series—particularly Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins—but worse things could happen.

Olive is a series of thirteen chapters and each one can be thought of as a short story—in fact, about half of them were originally published as short stories in The New Yorker and other magazines/journals. They are united in two ways: first they all have to do with the lives of people living in Crosby, Maine, a fictional town that seems eminently real, and second, each story involves the character of Olive Kitteridge, some only mentioning her tangentially, others written about her. This structure begs the question—is there a synergistic thingee going on here? What effect does a book have that’s a series of stories about different characters united by their relationships with a central character? And what effect does the order of the stories have? We’ll have to delve into these matters, best beloved.

An interesting fact: on the front cover of the 2008 Random House edition, there’s the title and author’s name, a gold circle with the words “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” And below the evocative image of a dried leaf, the word “fiction.” I think it’s interesting that the book designer and publisher thought it necessary to identify Olive as fiction vs. non-fiction or biography. Readers of this blog’s entries on Sebald’s The Emigrants will no doubt smile knowingly.

Long time readers of this blog (you happy few) know that I am very interested in the narrative structure of fiction. Olive provides a delightful example of how an author can create a storyteller who is both anonymous in a formal sense, and also intensely familiar. A voice that is not the flesh and blood author, but an entity whom we imagine telling us the story. (The reader may well imagine it is Ms. Strout herself telling the story, an impression abetted by the author’s photograph on the inside jacket—an image of a smiling middle-aged woman.

I say—NO! It’s not her! It’s a separate entity.

Long time readers of this blog might say (perhaps in a whiny voice) what’s the difference between these dang entities? What the heck are you talking about?

What I’m talking about are distinctions between at least three entities. There is the real author, Elizabeth Strout, who wrote Olive Kitteridge and labored mightily to get it published (thank you). There is the book’s narrator, in this case, an essentially anonymous voice that tells the story in consistent and beautiful prose. And there is the implied author. The implied author can be thought of as a personality a step removed from the narrator, an imaginary entity whom the reader assumes is responsible for decisions about the type of narrator—that is, there are many types of narrators; first-person, second-person, narrators that are actual characters in a story, narrators that are nearly invisible and anonymous, and so on. The implied author can be detected in all the details of the story’s style; not only the type of narrator but verb tense, language choice, chapter divisions, perspective, etc. As I said, the reader may imagine the implied author is simply Ms. Strout and be done with it. It’s a fuzzy distinction at best. The point is that Ms. Strout has written other stories and books that—while they do have a consistent style—are dissimilar in the ways that make Olive a consistent work. Although written by the same author, Olive Kitteridge is distinct from My Name Is Lucy Barton.

It is not hard to detect the narrator.

“Three hours ago, while the sun was shining full tilt thought the trees and across the back lawn, the local podiatrist, a middle-aged man named Christopher Kitteridge, was married to a woman from out of town named Suzanne. This is the first marriage for both of them, and the wedding has been a smallish, pleasant affair…So far, the polite cheerfulness of the guests seems to show no sign of running down, and Olive Kitteridge…is thinking it’s really high time everyone left.”

So here we have the narrator telling us things that the characters might or might not be aware of—the sun is shining. The local podiatrist is named Christopher—would he think this about himself? Probably not. It’s the first marriage for both bride and groom—again, they may think this about themselves but not in the way it’s presented in the story. Real people might have occasion to think: “I’m me—the sum of my sensations and memories. I’m the podiatrist around here—the local podiatrist, and I’m getting married. The sun is out. I haven’t been married before, neither has Christine.” Maybe if a real person met someone new and wanted to explain what was going on: “Hello. I’m Christopher Kittridge, and I’m marrying Christine. It’s pretty sunny, eh? I’m a podiatrist, haven’t been married before. That’s my mother Olive over there. She always looks that way.”

Yes, in this chapter, “A Little Burst,” Olive appears in the first paragraph. She’s described as thinking it’s time the wedding was over, impatiently, perhaps—described as feeling this way, not shown as feeling this way. “When is this damn thing going to be over?” Olive thought,” would show it.

The whole section (as well as the whole book) is in the storyteller’s voice—not the characters’. Beautiful imagery and simile that does not typically occur to real people. The protagonist of the second chapter, Kevin, is looking at the harbor. ”The salt air filled his nose, the wild rugosa bushes with their white blossoms brought him a vague confusion; a sense of sad ignorance seemed cloaked in their benign white petals.”

This is the narrator’s voice—unless Kevin is very poetic, which he doesn’t seem to be.

There are wonderful descriptions of complex, ambiguous emotional states. “Henry stands up, Daisy Foster fleetingly through his mind, her smile as she spoke of going dancing. The relief that he just felt over Denise’s note, that she is glad for the life that unfolded before her, gives way suddenly queerly, into an odd sense of loss, as if something significant has been taken from him. “Olive,” he says.”

Again, this is the narrator describing Henry’s inner state in its own words—not Henry’s.

‘Kay. Next week we will plunge further. A slippery slope? Maybe. Till then.


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