When I was in high school, I worked in a local pharmacy and learned the secrets of everyone in town: the mayor was taking Valium, an overwhelmed mother had a prescription for 100 Percocet tablets filled monthly, a close friend’s parents never paid their bills (this was back when I thought everyone paid their bills), and a young girl voted “best looking” by her fellow classmates in the graduating class of the local high school was trying to break into modeling and getting hooked on diet pills to become the size 4 she would never be.
I also knew who was having sex: either she, who was getting her birth control prescription filled or he, who would ask for condoms which were kept in the top left drawer behind the counter. Asking if he wanted “large, extra-large, or magnum” and “plain or ribbed” was always an excruciating experience for 17-year old me. I learned to keep secrets because when you work in a small town pharmacy, the walls don’t have to talk to learn what lurks within them.
Crosby, Maine is similar to the town I grew up in and is the setting for Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize (2009) winning novel “Olive Kitteridge,” the fictional tale of the residents of a small town in Maine. Henry Kitteridge, the local pharmacist and his wife, Olive Kitteridge, a school teacher have spent their lives in Crosby and know virtually everyone and their secrets as a result of their careers in the pharmacy and the school. The stories in the book – 13 chapters – focus on both Olive and Henry and how their lives intersect with the residents whose secrets they often know but don’t divulge. No one knows Henry and Olive’s secrets and they go to great lengths to keep their secrets to themselves and to deny their existence even to each other.
Olive Kitteridge is the main character of the novel and is not a likable person. She is opinionated, forthright, bossy, and generally cantankerous. But, Olive can also be kind and understanding when someone is in trouble. She is a woman in a marriage without passion but realizes “she’d never had a friend as loyal, as kind, as her husband” and so she stays. Throughout the book, she wrestles with her desires for passion and her commitment to loyalty and this makes her an angry woman. She wants the 40-something high school teacher, the dentist, and even the young boy with the blemished face that threatens to kill her husband, Henry but she always stops herself.
Henry and Olive have a son, Christopher who they love and want close by but Christopher grows up, becomes a podiatrist, meets a woman from Philadelphia, marries, moves to California, gets divorced, remarries and moves to New York City. Olive cannot understand why her son wants very little to do with her. She continually tells herself she loved Christopher – so why doesn’t he love her back? What becomes quickly apparent is Olive’s inability to see how her mental and physical abuse of her son turned him away. It’s only at the end of the book, when Olive is having a conversation with another character and asks about his daughter:
Does your daughter hate you?
My son hates me, too.
Does it kill you? It kills me that my daughter hates me. But, I know it’s my fault.
It kills me. Like the devil. I don’t remember things the way he seems to remember them. …But it has to be my fault, too. Henry said I never apologized for anything, ever, and maybe he was right.
I’ve beaten my daughter emotionally. I didn’t speak to her for two years. Can you imagine such a thing?
I hit my son…not just spanked. Hit.
That a child doesn’t want to return to a hometown or be a part of a parent’s life is very sad but Olive only has herself to blame and yet, she is helpless to change herself because she doesn’t see the need. She simply can’t say “I’m sorry” and show herself as a human being with faults and try to make amends. Instead, she lives in denial and self-righteousness unable to reconcile the part of her that doesn’t care what people think with the part of her that craves love, acceptance, and passion.
Strout, in describing Olive writes:
Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradley’s, let’s say or the waitress at Dunkin Donuts who knows how you like your coffee.
If only life were that easy. For anyone that doesn’t understand why grown children leave and won’t come back or stay away from abusive parents who are incapable of saying “I’m sorry” or of changing, “Olive Kitteridge” provides a glimpse into seeing why it’s so hard to forgive.