Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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First off how good is the minimalist cover of Olive Kitteridge? I really thought I got lucky with this edition not just because I love lighthouses.

I have been delaying talking about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge because I read it within a month of my grandfather’s death. Saying we were very close would be an understatement. At first the book hurt terribly. I thought I knew heartbreak and then life decides to say ha let me show you how you wrong you are! Initially, you want to escape the pain not experience it more deeply. But then the latter is more cathartic in the long run, and you start to heal when you realize this is the way of the world. We are all connected by loss, love and longing.

I was astounded by Elizabeth Strout’s writing. There’s a kind of gentleness about the everyday life she writes about. It is never banal. I never thought everyday life could be written about so poignantly and have such an immediacy to it. Ordinary people, everyday entanglements and normal lives in the hands of a gifted writer makes for a compelling narrative.

Henry Kitteridge, the husband of Olive Kitteridge, reminded me of my grandfather – kind and affable, never wanting to make a fuss and trying his best to be in harmony with what is.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Olive Kitteridge is the portrait of a long marriage and of an only child’s failed relationship with his parents. It is learning that marriage cannot alleviate your loneliness completely even though you are bound together for life. It is about the deterioration and fatigue that sets in old age. It is about finding companionship when you least expect it. It is about tender unexpected love that has no name but which gushes forth without caring if it’s appropriate. It is a deep yearning to be connected yet unable to bridge the gap.

It is about the truth and being straightforward being the kinder way in some cases. It is about the meek and submissive becoming vile when it is they who wield the power.

It is about small things, things of no apparent consequence and almost invisible to others, having the capacity to cause such tremendous heartbreak that it takes you by surprise.

It is about compassion lurking under battle hardened hearts and letting go of judgement, living with everything as is. It is being true to yourself above all because in the end when Death is coming for you, that’s all that matters.

Olive Kitteridge showed me all that and more. I could identify with many things. Things I didn’t know I felt, things I suppressed because they weren’t important in the scheme of day to day living. And there were things I could foresee myself identifying with in the future. When a book does that you know it’s a keeper.

The caregiver’s dilemma portrayed in the book was relatable to the point of making me uncomfortable – of not wanting to lose a loved one and yet unable to see their suffering and wanting them to leave the material world. I know it the hard way that in death also there’s a kind of death people prefer, and one should be so lucky to have it.

 Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became.

The loneliness experienced by the characters in the book is shown so well that you can feel it seep into your soul. You live together but you find it difficult to share the things that are killing you inside. You cannot talk to just anyone. The person chosen to act as the receptacle for your words has to be someone who at least connects with it, if not understands it completely. It results in unlikely connections which are surprisingly deep. And these are the moments no paeans are sung to. No one shouts about it from the rooftops and it is barely visible to the outside world, and if it is, it isn’t treated as something substantial.

Sometimes the impact of the book was like a sledgehammer and sometimes it was subtle.

Olive is such a strong character but one I didn’t hope to care for. I thought it would be gentle Henry not brusque Olive yet in the end, the latter turned out to be more relatable.

Reading Olive Kitteridge will make you wary of snap judgements. Why people are the way they are, what makes them tick, their psychological makeup and how life events have shaped them to be who they are, is ultimately unknowable even under utmost scrutiny. Sometimes even 60 years of togetherness isn’t enough.

I would have loved the book either way but I understand and appreciate it better now. Death of a loved one changes how you see life. I have the series at my fingertips but I have been delaying watching it for inevitable comparisons. Guess I am as ready as I will be to see the incredible Frances McDormand as Olive. If you haven’t yet seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri go watch it now.

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