This is not exactly a book review. Before I left for the beach back in March I alluded to a running disagreement in one of my book groups about Olive Kitteridge and that we would be meeting to discuss the book when I got back in April. So, here’s my report on our book group “rumble” (pages were, in fact, turned down) and my own reflections.
For those of you who haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, go do so now. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Beautifully written and compelling, and just damn near close to perfect. But because this is not really a review, I’m going to write as if you’ve already read the book, so if you haven’t, beware that things will be given away here.
The gist of the disagreement has to do with Olive and motherhood. At some point, a very good friend and I were having a conversation and I said I thought Olive was not a great mother, but okay. My friend said she was a horrible mother. She abused Christopher. “What are you talking about?” I said, or something of the sort. At no point in reading the novel had I thought that Olive was abusive. Mostly I had thought, and these were the exact words I used repeatedly in our book group, that Christopher was a little shit. So you might think of the disagreement as about whether or not Olive is abusive and what kind of mother she is to Christopher.
Sides were taken in this disagreement, and there was some joking conversation about who would “win.” Re-reading the book while I was on the beach, I found that, yes, there are references to Olive hitting Christopher.
On p.269, Olive says to Jack Kennison, “I did hit my son…Sometimes when he was little. Not just spanked. Hit.”
On p.232, we have to presume this is Christopher speaking to Olive, but it’s Olive remembering what he said, and so not in direct quotation marks, but italics: “Do you have no memory of these things at all? These days, they’d send a social worker right to the home, if a kid showed up that way.”
On p. 71, and these are Olive’s thoughts: “She tried teaching him to play the piano and he wouldn’t play the notes right. It was how scared he was of her that made her go all wacky. But she loved him! She would like to say this to Suzanne. She would like to say, Listen, Dr. Sue, deep down there is a thing inside me, and sometimes it swells up like the head of a squid and shoots blackness through me. I haven’t wanted to be this way, but so help me, I have loved my son.”
On p. 145: “She was flooded with images of Christopher: As a toddler, he had reached to touch a geranium on the windowsill, and she had slapped his hand. But she had loved him! By God, she had loved him. In second grade, he had almost set himself on fire, trying to burn his spelling test out back in the woods. But he knew she loved him. People know exactly who loves them, and how much—Olive believed this. Why would he not allow his parents to even visit him? What had they done?”
These are the pages I turned down. In fairness to the other side, there’s another passage I couldn’t find (I promise I did look) which was interpreted as Olive realizing on some level that she had done wrong, and feeling vaguely ashamed.
Is Olive abusive? Did she hit Christopher? Yes. Did she do more than spank him? Yes. Would that be abuse? I don’t know. I’m a sociologist, and I have to acknowledge that the definition of behaviors change over time. Olive is an older woman from a small town in Maine. In her time, no, hitting your child, and more than spanking, was not particularly considered abuse. Can we look back in time and say, sure, it wasn’t considered abuse then, but it was still wrong? I don’t know. Wrong, how? Wrong for that particular time period, or wrong by the particular methods of socialization we have today that fit the society our children will occupy? I’m sometimes skeptical of a narrative which assumes that everything is getting “better.” Are they really getting better, or are they just different? Of course when you judge the past using a set of criteria particular to this time period, they seem better. But is that fair? I’ve never spanked or hit my stepdaughter because it doesn’t seem a particularly effective means of punishment, but that’s me speaking from my own particular historical and cultural position.
Christopher suggests that Olive hit him hard enough to actually leave visible marks. If that’s true, than I would be more likely to say Olive was abusive. But the truth of the matter is, I don’t particularly trust Christopher. See above. Christopher seems like a person who still has some rather serious growing up to do. Do we take his word for Olive’s behavior or not? I’m inclined not to, fully acknowledging that I really don’t like Christopher as a character, and I think the way he treats Olive is pretty crappy. He seems to me to have incentive to make Olive seem worse in his head than she actually might have been.
I don’t think anyone actually won in our book group discussion, but it was an interesting discussion, and interesting to see how people reacted to Olive. One of our members was especially disturbed by Olive stealing her daughter-in-laws shoe, but I could totally relate. No, I have stolen no shoes, but I certainly can understand getting to the moment where you want to mess with someone in that way.
I know a lot of Olive’s in my life and I love a lot of Olive’s. I feel very much like I am Olive in moments. One of our book group members talked about how very much Olive seems to care and feel, and yet sometimes she’s just not able to act in ways that convey that. I feel sometimes trapped in my inability to really show the people I love how much I care about them.
When you know and love an Olive, it seems to me you have a fairly simple set of options. You can just give up on that relationship. Or if that relationship is important enough to you, you have to learn to take the person for who they are. Olive does change a little bit by the end of the novel, but not everyone does. Christopher bothers me because he doesn’t seem to get that. Piss or get off the pot, but lecturing Olive about who she is doesn’t seem very helpful to me.
What all this discussion and reflection shows is that Olive Kitteridge is an incredibly compelling and complex character. An Emily Dickinson poem has always summed up for me what I think fiction and poetry, and maybe art in general, should do: “Tell the truth/But tell it slant/Success in circuit lies.” Strout is revealing some important truths in this novel, but the “slant” is what makes it interesting, the space where you bring your own experiences to the novel, and that interaction produces your own individual take on it. So, what did you think about Olive as a mother? Is she abusive? Is she a good mother?
I’ll end with just one other page I “turned down.” On p. 72, this is Olive thinking: “Nobody knows everything–they shouldn’t think they do.” Amen, Olive, amen!