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...

(The entire section is 1126 words.)

Olive Kitteridge

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The title character in Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge is not an altogether likable person. As a widow in her seventies, Olive is just as difficult as she was three decades earlier, when she terrorized her seventh-graders. During their long lifetime together, she routinely opposed and criticized her kindly, long-suffering husband Henry, and she effectively drove away their only child, Christopher. However, Olive does elicit respect, if not always affection, from the other residents of Crosby, Maine, for though she is tactless, she is incapable of pretense, and sometimes she can be surprisingly kind. In any case, Strout evidently realized that though Olive is a fascinating character, a novel written entirely from her perspective would be difficult to read. Wisely, the author chose to organize her work as a collection of connected short stories. In that way, she could avoid having the book dominated by Olive, and, by changing frequently from one point of view to another, she could present both the title character and the other people in her village from several different perspectives.

Thus the initial story, or chapter, is told not from Olive’s point of view but from that of Henry. As the title “Pharmacy” suggests, his work is of central importance in Henry’s life. As a pharmacist, he can help others, not only by carefully filling their prescriptions but also by simply listening to them. Moreover, when he is at the pharmacy, he does not have to deal with Olive’s fits of temperament or her gratuitous cruelty, which she displays in dozens of ways (for example, by stubbornly refusing to accompany him to church, despite the fact that he is embarrassed by her absence). Olive’s comment about Henry’s new clerk, Denise Thibodeau, is typical: The girl is unimpressive, Olive points out, and her posture is poor. When Henry invites Denise and her young husband over for dinner, Olive objects, and then, after Henry overrides her veto, she serves her guests nothing but a plateful of baked beans and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. However, Denise proves to be the bright spot in Henry’s life. Though he is much too principled to be unfaithful to Olive, he commits a kind of adultery by letting thoughts of Denise occupy his mind, by having imaginary conversations with her, and even by pretending that it is Denise, not Olive, to whom he is making love. Then Denise’s husband is accidentally killed, and she remarries and moves away. Over the next two decades, Henry continues to feel guilty about his feelings for her. When a note comes from Denise, suddenly Henry understands why Olive had been so inconsolable when a male colleague was killed: Obviously, she had loved him just as Henry had loved Denise. With that realization, Henry’s long-standing guilt is replaced by a new understanding of Olive and new feelings of tenderness toward her.

Though the stories in Olive Kitteridge vary greatly in tonesome of them nostalgic, others sad, and others humorousall of them end as “Pharmacy” did, with an epiphany. One of the saddest stories, “A Different Road,” illustrates how little it takes to mar a relationship. When Olive and Henry are held hostage at the local hospital, they say things in front of their captor that they know they will never be able to forget. In the final story, “River,” for the first time Olive admits her own shortcomings, especially in her treatment of Henry, and she regrets that she cannot go back and make amends. Nevertheless, old habits die hard. When Jack Kennison, a widower, happens along, Olive’s inclination is to look for his flaws. With some amusement, Kennison recognizes the fact that as a well-to-do Republican, he represents everything that Olive loathes. However, after seventy years of finding fault with everyone but herself, Olive finally has to admit that she is not always right. When Jack phones and asks her to come over, she knows that she will end up in bed with him. Almost too late, she has realized that life is short and that love is too important to be wasted.

Nevertheless, love, or desire passing for love, accounts for a good deal of the misery in Olive Kitteridge. One of the funniest stories...

(The entire section is 1716 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The Atlantic Monthly 302, no. 1 (July/August, 2008): 140.

Booklist 104, nos. 9/10 (January 1, 2008): 46.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 3 (February 1, 2008): 113-114.

Library Journal 133, no. 2 (February 1, 2008): 65.

The New York Times Book Review, April 20, 2008, p. 13.

The New Yorker 84, no. 12 (May 5, 2008): 77.

People 69, no. 14 (April 14, 2008): 46.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 49 (December 10, 2007): 31.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 9, 2008, p. E5.

USA Today, April 24, 2008, p. 7D.