Thank you!

  • Alan Bray

The Elephant in the Room


First, a personal note. For the first time in some sixty weeks, my blog did not have a new entry last Thursday. Readers were, I know, concerned and despondent. But I had no way to reach all of you because the problem was that our internet router failed. With no internet, we were thrown back into a twilight world of reading books and…talking.

Well, things have returned to “normal.”

The second chapter of Olive, “Incoming Tide,” presents two themes that occur throughout the book, first, the way the past marks the present—often for worse, and second, how people save each other, sometimes quite literally. Olive Kitteridge herself makes an appearance—and, my friends, it is more than a cameo.

Incoming Tide is the story of Kevin, who returns to the town of Crosby, where he’d lived till age twelve, with the intention of killing himself. He sits in his car, watching the bay, a rifle wrapped in a blanket in the back seat.

“The bay had small whitecaps and the tide was coming in, so the smaller rocks could be heard moving as the water shifted them.” Perhaps this opening is a metaphor for a powerful force that inexorably alters things, even things as solid as rock.

Huh.

After two longish paragraphs, the story shifts to the perspective of Patty Howe, who works in the small restaurant on the bay. She is aware of Kevin sitting in a car, is vaguely disturbed by him, although he is at first unfamiliar. Then, “she suddenly knew who the man was, and something passed over her, like a shadow crossing in front of the sun.” For Patty had known Kevin when they were both children. Her mother had encouraged her to play with Kevin, and Patty had been afraid of Kevin “and his mother—tall, dark-haired, deep-voiced.”

This dual perspective on the same scene is a feature of Olive. Maybe it could be called a way of emphasizing the subjectivity of experience. Different people “see” the same things in different ways, depending on who they are. Another philosophical assumption of Olive is that people are a lot about their pasts. The past claims the characters, shapes them in ways they are aware of but may choose to resist.

Back to Kevin. It’s revealed delicately that his mother shot herself to death when he was a boy, and that he discovered her body. The trauma is with him still; he’s tried to have a “normal” life, studying to be a psychiatrist, but suffers from depression and intends to end it all—in such a way that children will not discover his body.

Suddenly Olive Kitteridge appears.

“…his body jumped a little to see a woman staring through the passenger window, her face close, staring straight at him.

“Mrs. Kitteridge. Holy shit…”

A great entrance. Olive was Kevin’s seventh-grade teacher. Much to his surprise, she gets in his car. They make small-talk and observe Patty Howe coming out of the restaurant to collect flowers from the shoreline where waves crash against the seawall.

Kevin tells Olive that he’s in a residency to become a psychiatrist.

After a moment, Mrs. Kitteridge said, “Well your mother may not have been able to help it.”

“He felt the strain of some sadness make its way from her to him. Gusts of wind were now swooping in all directions, so that the bay looked like a crazily frosted cake, peaks rising one way, then another…I’ve thought of you, Kevin Coulson,” she said. “I have.”

A nice development of the opening metaphor of the incoming tide, as well as wonderful pacing. Tension increases as the current conversation between Kevin and Olive dredges up the past—presented by the narrator who has crawled inside Kevin’s head.

Then another paragraph break, and a return to Patty’s perspective. She notices “…Mrs. Kitteridge had joined Kevin Coulson in the car, and it gave her a feeling of safety, having Mrs. Kitteridge with him. She couldn’t have said why, and didn’t dwell on it.” (By the way, here‘s a great example of the narrator telling the story—not Patty who “couldn’t have said why.”)

Has Olive gotten into Kevin’s car on purpose because she sensed he was going to suicide? Or is it a more random act that evolves into an intervention? We can only infer the answer as, in this chapter, we have no access to Olive’s mind.

Back to Kevin, who wishes Olive would leave so he can shoot himself. She talks about mental illness and heredity, and Kevin thinks about his ex-girlfriend Clara and then how he himself never felt at home anywhere. Suddenly, he doesn’t want Olive to go. He begins to tell her, but at that point, she sees Patty fall into the ocean, the incoming tide. Olive leaps from the car, shouting at Kevin to come help. He does so, jumping into the water without much thought and holding Patty safely while Olive gets more help. “He would not let her go…oh, insane, ludicrous, unknowable world! Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.” This ending moves very close to Kevin’s inner-ness so that it’s difficult to determine whether it’s he or the narrator telling the story. Free indirect speech, we’ve seen it before. (Shhh—it’s a sign of the implied author).

So, we have Olive saving Kevin and Kevin saving Patty. Maybe Patty saves Kevin too? Her falling into the sea spurs Kevin—who’s already been saved by Olive—to risk death to save her. He experiences someone who’s desperate to live. Ironic, as Jordan Catalano used to say.

I would say, life then, is the powerful force that moves the rocks of Kevin’s resolve. He jumps out of his past to literally embrace life.

This issue of how much the past determines the present is big in Olive. We will have to examine it more. Till then.

#OliveKitteridge #ElizabethStrout