Setting is crucial, complex, and subtle in Olive Kitteridge. Almost all of the stories—twelve of the thirteen—are set in small towns of Crosby or Maisy Mills, Maine. Only "Security" is set somewhere else, and that story follows Olive Kitteridge on her trip to New York City and back to Maine. Olive goes to New York to visit her son Christopher, and so, while a few of the details of urban life stand out, like the crowded streets and the double-parked cars, the emotional focus is either domestic (Christopher's home), nostalgic (the past), or the experience of the new as alienation.
Setting is essential to Olive Kitteridge for several tightly interwoven reasons. First, the characters are very much small-town people. They know their town extremely well and any change is upsetting. As the first line of "Basket of Trips" tells readers, "Town is the church, and the grange hall, and the grocery store, and these days the grocery store could use a coat of paint." The fact that there is just the one church, and just the one grocery store, clearly communicates how small the town is. In fact, the town is not even named in most stories. It is just "the town," as if there could be only one, like there is only one church. Although no major characters are farmers, the presence of a grange hall points to the town's rural legacy. The small-town setting also means there is no anonymity and much connection. It makes sense that many people would know the Kitteridges. Olive teaches the children and Henry deals with the adults at the pharmacy. Everyone knows everyone else's business.
But those details would apply to any small town; setting also matters a great deal because of details specific to Maine. The town is not just small, it has an extended history. Since the town is on the coast, the water plays a major symbolic role in stories such as "Incoming Tide," which is set almost entirely at the marina. The climate shapes the characters, making them more taciturn. When harsh events hit them, they hunker down as they might when a nor'easter blows in off the water. Crosby's climate and foliage are repeatedly described in crisp specificity; it is no exaggeration to say that the changing leaves receive more attention in Olive Kitteridge than most buildings and streets do.
While the general influence of setting is powerful and obvious, Strout's use of setting is both complex and subtle. A number of individual settings are mentioned in the various stories: "Pharmacy" is mostly set in Henry's pharmacy, "Incoming Tide" is mostly set at the marina, most of "Piano Player" is set at the Warehouse Bar & Grill at Christmas, and so on. However, even though specific settings are identified for each story, and the settings change...
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