I can’t say I liked Olive Kitteridge when I first met her, but she certainly was a character, in the figurative sense as well as the literal. A gossipy, recently retired middle school math teacher, she was a perfect foil to reveal the secrets, fears, and regrets of her fellow residents of Crosby, Maine. And in so doing, she showed herself as a judgmental busybody for whom everything was all about her.
Recently, I met “Olive Again,” and, while sometimes her behavior is so awful I had to laugh, I feel I understand her better than I did, and that has brought a new admiration for her. I might even have grown to love her, though I still have trouble liking her all the time. She and I are both 10 years older than when we first met, and I see in her both some cautions for myself in old age and some profound affirmations about life at any age.
Prickly. Olive is definitely prickly. She’s quick to give offense and to take it. She dismisses things she doesn’t approve of with expressions that leave no room for negotiation: “Oh for God’s sake,” “Good heavens,” “Phooey on you,” “Good Godfrey,” or, perhaps, most dismissive of all, “It’s fine, fine.” When she accuses her adult son of never visiting, he responds that she never invites him, and rather than try to talk about that, she rants on about how he should know he doesn’t need to be invited, that it’s his house. But it clearly isn’t, and her outspoken criticism of him and her refusal to get to know his wife have tacitly conveyed that. When the waitress at a restaurant treats her coolly, Olive is affronted by what an unfriendly girl she is and remarks over and over to herself what a huge hind end the waitress has.
She’s prejudiced and a “reverse snob,” as her second husband points out. As a teacher, she made negative judgments about her students who were French Canadian and came from large families. She’s critical of people for the way they dress, the cars they drive, the way they decorate their homes, and of course for their “stupid” opinions that differ from hers. Sometimes her disapproval remains in her head, but more often she speaks her mind, usually in a passive-aggressive way. She seems indifferent, or worse, to her effect on others. When she sees a former student who has become a famous poet, she goes over to the booth where she’s sitting. Even though Olive can tell the woman would rather be by herself, she sits down anyway, justifying her action by the fact that she’s old and why should she care about someone else. (While I was appalled at this coming from Olive, I have to admit that sometimes, if I don’t catch myself, I can feel the same way.)
Olive doesn’t have any real friends and it’s easy to see why. In addition to her abrasive outspokenness, she turns any conversation to stories about herself, showing no compassion for others. Most of the people with whom she interacts have had to endure horrible stuff—sexual abuse, the suicide of a parent, unwanted pregnancy, estranged children or spouses—but Olive has little admiration for their resiliency. Ironically, it is in the raw honesty of these stories about herself that Olive often makes a connection to another person and helps them see their own situation reflected by hers.
While it appears from her behavior that Olive has no self-awareness and never allows herself to be vulnerable, she does have flashes of insight, such as when her daughter-in-law’s story of her neglectful parents makes Olive realize that “she herself had been raising a motherless child.” But it isn’t until she hits 80 that Olive starts to really get it. And it takes someone else to put it into words. When she had sat down that day, unbidden, with her former student turned poet, whose loneliness she had detected in her as a child and saw now, too, Olive told her about her own life, with all of its sadnesses. Months later, someone leaves a magazine in her mailbox with a particular page marked. Olive reads what she recognizes as a biographical poem written about her that ends with, “who told me I had always been lonely/no idea she was talking about herself.” I felt a rush of compassion for Olive with her new understanding that it was her loneliness that kept her from being close to others, which in turn increased her sense of isolation.
She never loses her edge, but Olive begins to change. When she observes that Betty, one of her nurse’s aides, has a certain political bumper sticker, Olive takes a disliking to her. But one day she says to Betty, “What is your life like, Betty?” And she listens. In her old age and aloneness, Olive finds empathy and in so doing finds a certain happiness.
The book is structured as “Olive Kitteridge” was, a series of separate stories all connected by the character of Olive. In some, Olive herself is the central charater, while in others, different residents of Crosby tell their stories. They are all stoic Mainers, suffering in silence, doing the best they can. But for all of them, there is a breakthrough as they make some connection with another person, see themselves more clearly, and are able to move beyond the past. It is Olive for whom this is most true.
As Olive discovers, when you know all there is to know about someone—even those disparaged as “Betty Boop” and “Mousey Pants”—you can forgive them anything, and that’s when love can happen. As a reader, I discovered this about Olive.