Elizabeth Strout’s novel resides in the periphery of things. Like Stoner by John Williams or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Olive Kitteridge is not set in a big city; it does not recount great historical events or epochal changes. It is a collection of short stories all linked by the figure of Olive, a strong, independent, and sometimes brutal woman (another example of the same narrative structure is A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan). The novel explores, in the thoughtful style typical of Strout, the difficulty of human relationships, the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations, and the wounds that cannot be healed. At the same time, through big and small moments of kindness and warmth – like one of Olive’s former student who throws himself into the sea to save a girl, or Olive’s attempt to hide a compromising secret at a funeral – Olive Kitteridge restores a sense of forgotten hope, that which comes from compassion and sacrifice.
All the different stories focus on the figures of Olive, her husband, Henry, her son, Christopher, and the citizens of Crosby, Maine, where the novel is set. Olive is the central narrator, and it’s her voice that echoes in the reader’s mind even after the last page: it’s her point of view that, in the end, remains embedded in the memory. Olive’s sincerity-no-matter-what is upsetting, at the beginning; but then her regrets about her husband and son, her belated awareness, her late love story soothe our souls, teach us to look for gold dust in the mud of the river.