One of the ways Olive K. is novel-like is the development throughout the book of the main character, Olive Kitteridge. The first chapter, “Pharmacy,” is, as we know, told from Olive’s husband Henry’s perspective. Here’s the first glimpse of Olive herself. “Mousy,” his wife said, when he hired the new girl. “Looks just like a mouse.” Olive is only seen through Henry’s eyes, and the story is largely about Henry’s yearning for the young woman who works for him, a woman who needs his help. Olive, by contrast, is to Henry, mercurial, dissatisfied, and desirable—what Henry (via the narrator) refers to as “her outer Olive-ness,” which implies he’s aware of more inside her, although he offers no elaboration. He observes how she had outwardly changed with age—“She is not as tall as she used to be, and is broader across the back.” Olive is unfaithful; Henry “understood long ago—after Jim O’Casey’s car went off the road, and Olive spent weeks going straight to bed after supper, sobbing harshly into a pillow—Henry understood then that Olive had loved Jim O’Casey, had possibly been loved by him…” We have an initial sense of Olive being kind of mean, at least to Henry, unfaithful, arrogant and resentful.
The next story, “Incoming Tide” presents a different side, still from someone else’s perspective, in this case, Kevin Coulson’s. It is more sympathetic. Olive interrupts, intentionally or not, Kevin’s plans for suicide and shares personal information. “My father…was depressed. And he never talked. Maybe they could have helped him today.” She tells Kevin her father suicided. “Shot himself…No note.” She says her son Christopher is depressed. “I wish I hadn’t passed those genes on to him.” So now against the story of Olive being a difficult and angry wife, there is another, a story of someone who’s aware of being depressed, and communicates guilt over her son.
“A Little Burst” is the first story told from Olive’s perspective. “All afternoon, Olive had been fighting the sensation of moving underwater—a panicky, dismal feeling, since she had somehow never managed to learn to swim.” We learn that Olive suffered a heart attack and thinks about her mortality. “Weeping would not have come close to what she felt. She felt fear…Fear that her heart would squeeze shut again, would stop, the way it did once before, a fist punched through her back.”
There’s more: “Olive herself has been worried about Christopher’s being lonely. She was especially haunted this past winter by the thought of her son’s becoming an old man, returning home from work in the darkness, after she and Henry were gone.”
“Oh, it hurts—actually makes Olive groan as she sits on the bed. What does Suzanne (daughter-in-law) know about a heart that aches so badly at times that a few months ago it almost gave out…?…Her son came to her last Christmastime…and told her what he sometimes thought about. Sometimes I think about just ending it all—…An uncanny echo of Olive’s father, thirty-nine years before.”
We have inter-chapter development here, my friends. These are not separate stories but the developing tale of a complex person.
However, so far, what the reader experiences is different perspectives on Olive—her husband, friends, neighbors, the narrator. It could be that what we see is the difference between a public crustiness and private, unrevealed suffering. Olive is different than we first thought, then Henry thought. But perhaps she hasn’t really changed.
Then in “Security,” Olive faces a severe crisis. Not only has Henry suffered a stroke and must live in a nursing home, mute and largely paralyzed, but her adult son Christopher confronts her about her abusive behavior. She is reduced to sputtering rage by his maturity and resoluteness. She must confront her love for Jim O’Casey, as well as her maltreatment of her husband and son. She must confront the loss of all three men—four, including her father. This is something new; up to this point, she’s managed to keep herself together by denial and icy sarcasm.
“But Christopher shook his head. “I’m not going to be ruled by my fear of you, Mom.”
Fear of her? How could anyone be afraid of her? She was the one afraid!…Why are you torturing me? she had cried. What are you talking about? All your life I have loved you. And this is what you feel?”
At the beginning of the final chapter “River,” Henry has died, and Olive contemplates death. “Let it be quick, she thought now, meaning her death—a thought she had several times a day.” However, by the end, after she meets Jack, we finally get a changed Olive. “And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter?…Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude—and regret. She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.”
A progression has occurred, of confronting and dealing with loss and moving beyond to a sense of the beauty and meaningfulness of the living world—not a place to rush away from. A significant change in someone always so close to suicide.
Can we then argue for the thirteen stories in Olive K. producing a synergy, a sense of the whole being greater than the parts? (which were pretty great on their own).
I think so, best beloved.