Olive Kitteridge

I loved reading Olive Kitteridge, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book is a masterful anthology of short stories, linked together so that they become a novel. Characters from one story reappear in another at a different time of life, and as we learn more about Olive, her husband Henry, their son Christopher, and other people who weave through their lives, we piece together a patchwork of lives, dreams, pivotal moments, and regrets. The book is deeply engrossing, insightful, and often disturbing.

I’m always looking for literary fiction with strong older characters for whom sexuality is an accepted part of their emotional lives. Their sexual feelings or activities don’t have to be blatent, just acknowledged (by the author if not by the character) as normal and expected. Olive Kitteridge delivers, especially in the final story, “River,” where Strout narrates the feelings of the now widowed, 74-year-old Olive who is about to go to bed with a new man:

Oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones… [I]f love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it… But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese presssed together, such holes they brought to this union–what pieces life took out of you. Her eyes were closed, and throughout her tired self swept waves of gratitude–and regret.

I loved Olive Kitteridge so much that as soon as I’d finished, I wanted to start reading it again, now that I knew more about the characters. I also wrote a fan email to the author, Elizabeth Strout, which she graciously answered. (As an author, I know what a solitary endeavor it is to write books, and I always appreciate hearing from readers, so I hoped Ms. Strout felt the same.)

I was thrilled to learn that two of the stories from this book would be performed at Z Space in San Francisco as part of the Word for Word series, and I rushed to see it on opening night. The script was not an adaptation but a staged, dramatic performance of the stories verbatim (hence the name, “Word for Word”). 
The actors were strong, especially Patricia Silver as Olive, and the staging innovative. I applaud Word for Word for choosing stories that portrayed Olive and Henry (and then Olive and Jack) in the later parts of their lives, rather than the younger characters earlier in the book. I especially applaud W4W for choosing “River,” the story I quoted above.

If you’re in the San Francisco area, I hope you’ll catch this play, now playing through September 26, 2010, then read the book.