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The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to a collection of stories set in a small coastal town in Maine. Olive Kittredge is the book’s title and the name of the character who binds together its thirteen narratives. Author Elizabeth Strout describes Olive as “ferocious and complicated and kindly and sometimes cruel. In essence … a little bit of each of us.” Today the book has gained renewed attention with a recent HBO miniseries adaptation, starring Frances McDormand. For this Readers’ Review: we listen back to our discussion of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Olive Kitteridge.
- Kate Lehrer Author, most recently of "Confessions of a Bigamist."
- Leslie Maitland Former reporter, The New York Times and author, "Crossing the Borders of Time."
- Jackson Bryer Professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and co-editor of "Dear Scott, Dear Zelda" (St. Martin's Press)
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For this month's reader's review, we've chosen the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction "Olive Kitteridge." It's a collection of 13 short stories set in small town Maine. The judges said it packs a cumulative emotional wallop. The title character appears in all the stories, sometimes only briefly. She struggles with changes in the town and within herself as she moves from middle to old age.
MS. DIANE REHMThe judges described her as blunt, flawed and fascinating. Joining me here in the studio is Kate Lehrer. She's author of four novels. Jackson Bryer, he's professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and Leslies Maitland, she's memoirist and former New York Times reporter. Good morning to all of you.
MS. KATE LEHRERGood morning.
MR. JACKSON BRYERHi, Diane.
MS. LESLIE MAITLANDGood morning, Diane.
REHMKate Lehrer, is this a novel or is it a collection of short stories?
LEHRERWell, it's one of those rare, rare books which can be read either way, but it's certainly a novel, but each story stands alone. I can't think of one of these stories that wouldn't do it. And the only other person I can think of, offhand, that did -- succeeded is Malamud, who did this once in one of his books and I can't remember -- this morning, I was thinking of that. I can't remember which one, but he achieved that goal.
LEHRERBut you can read it either way. It's the accumulation of all these stories. It takes all of them to get the well-rounded picture of Olive.
BRYERI agree. There is an arch to the book. I wrote out a little chart for myself after reading it and by far, the majority of stories have Olive either as the central character or as a major character. There are only about three or four, I think, that -- in which she makes what you would call a cameo appearance. But even in those cameo appearances, you learn something about her as seen from other people's point of view.
BRYERSo the focus is pretty much on Olive and on, as Kate says, on the town and the people in the town.
REHMYou recently spoke to Elizabeth Strout.
BRYERYes, I did.
REHMTell me what she thought about her own book.
BRYERWell, she kept talking about the arch of the book. I mean, very definitely, the last story in the book, which she feels, and I feel, too, makes the book ultimately a very hopeful book where Olive finds a second man for her life in old age. That coming at the end sort of puts a sort of coda on the whole story and I think Elizabeth regards it as a book that has an arch to it. But as she said, when she started to write it, she realized that Olive was too intense a character, too -- I don’t know what the word is.
BRYERToo much of a character to be able to sustain her through an entire novel and that she needed to put stories in the book that viewed Olive from the outside as well as the central character.
REHMAnd Leslie Maitland, that first story, "Pharmacy," puts her on the periphery as she is introduced to us. I'm told that that was not the first story that Elizabeth Strout wrote.
MAITLANDActually, the first story she wrote was apparently the story in which her son gets married and she's so angry and so, you know, worried about losing this son who is the love of her life, really, that she takes sort a kind of vicious action against the daughter-in-law.
REHMNow, but I don't think that's why she took that vicious action. I think she took that vicious action because the dress that she had worked so hard on, she made it herself out of this big flowered material and she overheard the bride talking about this dress and that's when she took the vicious action.
MAITLANDI think she recognized that this young woman, a gastroenterologist from a very different background, was, as she put it, a know-it-all and very sure of herself and she wanted to make sure, by doing things like stealing a shoe or an undergarment or marking up her sweater in hiding in the closet, that the girl would have reason to scratch her head and say, my goodness.
REHMShe took one boot or one shoe and one something else, Jackson.
BRYERYeah, but I think that that story -- I mean, we were talking before we came in here that these stories really ought to be read a second time because when you read them through the first time, you're paying so much attention to what's happening in them that you don't really see the connections. And one of the things that happens in that story, as you say, this insult to Olive's dress really represents to Olive, at that point, this outsider coming to Maine and stealing her son away.
BRYERAnd this outsider, who doesn't know the difference between the stirtiums (sp?) and another flower that Olive has planted and who cannot -- I mean this book is as much about this place and about what's happening to this place, Crosby, Maine, on the coast of Maine and how it's gradually being invaded and being somewhat diluted by outside people. And when Dr. Sue, her daughter-in-law insults her dress, it really hurts Olive to the core.
BRYERAnd Leslie's right. I mean, Olive has plenty to resent her about to start with, but this is really the ultimate.
REHMIt's the kicker.
MAITLANDYes. She says that, you know, she overhears the conversation with the younger bride saying to a friend of hers, they just dress differently up here. And of course, Olive is looking down on all of them because they're wearing black. They're not wearing any color. And she thinks that's just horrible.
REHMI want to go back to the story, "Pharmacy," because I found putting her husband, Henry, as the main character of that story, he seems like such a decent fellow.
MAITLANDYes, I must say I found that "Pharmacy" was, in a way, maybe my favorite story. You're right. He is so decent. Olive puts him down saying that he sees life as if it were a Sears catalog with everybody just standing around smiling. His daughter-in-law later describes him a doll. I mean, he is a kind, good man. When he reaches out to a young widow and tries to help her, Olive's first reaction is very cruel.
MAITLANDBut when the girl loses her husband, Olive says, well, she could've just gone off to join the foreign legion. She calls Henry, you widow-comfortable.
REHMShe's really cruel in her own way.
MAITLANDShe is cruel in the first story. Henry is shown to be -- well, he says it's the happiest moment of his life. He's giving. He's feeling appreciated.
MAITLANDHe's reaching out to this young couple starting out in life and he's a warm-hearted decent man.
REHMI think she's also jealous of Henry because he can relate to well to human beings.
LEHRERExactly. And I don't know if it's in this story or another story where she's just thinking. She says, in her mind, but he's an innocent. It's how he's learned to get through life and that's a part of it. And what makes that story of the pharmacy so complicated, though, is that while he's in love or has this fascination -- infatuated with this young woman, the fact is you feel he's drawn to her as a life force and this is what you get of Olive in that story.
LEHRERIt's that she represents eroticism to him, too. The young couple, together, represent it. But Olive, herself, he sees as a life force and his growing up was a very hard, needy background. It's the distrust that comes through all the generations here, I think, that forms a very fascinating sub theme.
BRYERWell, what's interesting, Elizabeth says that these stories sort of fell into place and that the juxtaposition of them shouldn't really be regarded as totally significant. But it is very important that after the first story in which you get a very sort of negative view of Olive, as Leslie and Kate say. She sort of beats at Henry. In the very next story, "Incoming Tide," she basically saves this young man's life who is about to...
REHMTalk about how she does that.
BRYERWell, what happens is there's this young man who has grown up in the town, has moved away. His mother committed suicide. Suicide, by the way, is a big motif throughout this novel.
BRYERAnd he comes back to kill himself. He comes back in a car with a rifle in the back seat and he's parked in a parking lot by the marina. And suddenly, Olive pokes her head in the car and sits down and starts to talk to him. And I think this is a story that gets greater resonance after you've read the whole book because if you know -- you don't, at the point when you read this story, what Olive's full relationship with her own son is.
BRYERBut when you finish the book and you go back and look at that story and see how she talks to Kevin and, actually, she refers to Christopher in that story and finds, in Christopher, something that she can relate to in a situation where she's had great difficulty relating to Christopher as we later find out. And in a way, she saves his life. I mean, it's not quite clear exactly how she does, but this is one of those stories where Olive talking to somebody can show empathy to other people in a way that she cannot see about herself.
BRYERIn other words, she can provide a very comforting and very right kind of response to someone else's problem. And there are several stories in which that happens.
REHMBut she doesn't do it with her husband and that's one area that I found myself really wondering about until we get near the end. The book we're talking about, "Olive Kitteridge" which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for 2009.
REHMAnd if you're just joining us, this is our reader's review. The book we've chosen for this month, "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout. It won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. Here in the studio, Jackson Bryer, Leslie Maitland, Kate Lehrer. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. This gets to something you were saying earlier, Kate. It's an email from Catherine who says, "to what extent do you think that Olive's behavior, particularly her ability to reach out to people in peril is shaped by her family's history of mental illness?"
LEHREROh, I think that's a wonderful question and I think it's shaped completely almost by her family's mental illness. Her father, which we find out a lot more about in the second story, again through somebody else's eyes really, she's willing to talk about it, that he killed himself in, I think it was, their kitchen and she, I think as I remember it, she found that body.
LEHRERBut Kevin, whom, at this point, she's trying to talk out of suicide himself, she goes for the weak, you know, the weak, the people who can't...
LEHRERThe needy. And it's because she intuits that. She couldn't do it with her father. She says her father had told her 39 years ago when he killed himself that he, you know, he was very despondent. He didn't see the reason to live and she had handled it lightly. She herself had just gotten married, had a child. Ever after that, she, of course, clearly the guilt is huge and then she smothers Christopher, which...
LEHRERHer son, which comes out later in all that. But she reaches out to these people. The more needy they are, the more she can reach out and help them.
MAITLANDBut actually, when you look back, it seems that the only people she really does reach out to are younger people. She's a former math teacher, middle school math teacher. And all of the people she reaches out to are young, many of them are former students of hers. The older people, her peers in age, when she finds them in trouble, actually their troubles give her a kind of solace. She goes to visit people to hear that their situation is worse than hers and...
REHMAnd one of them threw her out.
MAITLAND...one of them says, you came her for some schadenfreude-ism, you know, joy in my grief, but so I don't think Olive's generosity towards others is really as, you know, that sweeping.
REHMIt's not consistent.
MAITLANDIt's not consistent at all.
REHMBut she -- there is some part of her, I think, that's trying to be...
MAITLANDWell, it's the maternal. So maybe her love for her son, she reaches out to these other young people. Former teacher and a mother who enjoyed being a mother and, as Kate said, smothered her son. But...
REHMShe thought he was enjoying it, too. What a terrible situation.
BRYEROne of the things I really liked about this book and I think anybody who reads it would agree with this, is it's very non-judgmental about people. In other words, everything Leslie says is true, but there's always a "but" in the sentence about any of these characters. And, you know, I instantly feel when I hear Leslie talk, I have to defend Olive. And I'm sure if somebody was easy on Olive, I'd also say, but wait a minute, look at what she does to so and so.
BRYERAnd but I think Elizabeth Strout is very non-judgmental about these people. She simple tells you that life is complicated, that you should not come to hasty judgments about people. That's one of the reasons these stories are told from different points of view because it depends who's looking at a situation as to whether you can view it in one way or in another way.
REHMDo we know that Olive was a good and effective math teacher?
LEHRERShe seems to be. Most of her students are afraid of her, but several of them like her almost in spite of their fear. That is the way I take it, and that she probably really did teach them.
REHMI think we have to talk about Patty Howe and whether, in fact, her fall off the cliff was suicidal or not. Apparently, book clubs have great discussions on this point.
BRYERI asked Elizabeth Strout just that question yesterday and...
REHMShe's not gonna tell you, is she?
BRYEROh, no. No, she did tell me.
BRYERAbout some of the other ends of stories that I asked her about, she didn't have a response. But she said, Patty Howe would never commit suicide. She would've slipped off those rocks because the configuration of them is slightly different now than it was when she was growing up walking around there. The marina has changed. It's of those things in the stories that has changed and also, she's now an adult and that she once could scramble all over those rocks as a young person. She's not longer young and she would've slipped.
BRYERElizabeth said she had too much to live for to commit suicide at that point.
MAITLANDI agree with that. In that case, I did think that that was an accident. But in regard to what Jackson was saying earlier, two points, about the constant theme of suicide in this book, when you look through and you see the litany of woes, suicide, betrayal, depression, loneliness, adultery in every story, you know, I came to thin that the stories that directly involved Olive really were the most powerful. The ones that brought in these themes in which Olive is only glancingly a character, that at times they felt almost oppressive to me in a way that I came to think at the end, sort with a nod to Forrest Gump and his view of life as a box of chocolates, that maybe in this book, she was saying every life was like a donut.
MAITLANDIn the middle of each one is a big empty hole. You know, no matter how sweet it is, there is misery everywhere. And when I looked at the book as a whole and I considered, she's not showing us a cold, wintery, miserable Maine. She's showing us a Maine of tulips and sailboats and bayberry bushes. She's showing us people who are well enough off to build additions on their home with cathedral ceilings and glass bay windows looking out over the ocean.
MAITLANDThere's people retiring early, people with enough money to build their children's seconds homes. So that it's not a world that is, in itself, a troubled world. Also, that all the grief seems to be presented as inherent to life itself. For each person, life itself is full of loneliness and despair. The potential is there. And even those who manage to slip away like Olive's son winds up, you know, divorced in California in a squalid brownstone. It's dark and dirty in Brooklyn.
REHMIn New York.
MAITLANDSo the grimness of the tales, after a while, started to take a toll on me.
LEHRERWell, I think going back to the idea of the donut and the hole in the middle, she says -- I'm not sure it's the first time, but when I went back through the book -- and Jackson and I talked earlier. You have to give this book two readings almost to catch everything, but you get the sense -- she says, where she's talking to this young anorexic and she said we're all starving. Don't you know, we're all starving. Why do you think I eat so many donuts?
REHMAnd here Olive is described as quite hefty.
LEHRERYeah, and several times she talks about, she says, don't be afraid of your hunger, to other people, don't be afraid of your hunger. Which, I kept thinking, how do we interpret this with Olive. And I kept thinking she's saying this is part of it. Don't compromise with yourself. Don't be like Henry and just be nice to people, which is what Henry does with his hunger. He learned from his mother, who'd had several breakdowns and was clearly emotionally fragile, just to gauge everybody's temperature and to go through life helping others.
LEHRERHe was a take care person. She thinks she's not, but she is. And that's part of her tragedy, too.
REHMBefore we open the phones and welcome our fellow readers into the discussion, we've got to talk about "A Different Road," the story in which Olive and Henry are driving home from dinner with friends when Olive says she must stop and use a restroom. And what happens, is they finally stop at a hospital and there's a hostage situation in which Olive utters some terrible things about her husband and his mother for which Henry can never forgive Olive.
MAITLANDHe also says a terrible thing about her. I mean, they both think they may die and they both have clashed in ways.
REHMThey both think they're gonna die and they both burst out with this thing that they've been, you know, sort of burying for their whole married life and it just comes out. Go ahead, Jackson.
BRYERWell, there are several things about that story that I think are characteristic of the book as a whole. First of all, that story starts out very amusing. As you say, they stop at this hospital. All she wants to do is go to the bathroom and before she knows it, they're examining her and finding things wrong with her and putting her on a table and you begin to think this is going to be a very funny story.
BRYERWell, of course, it doesn't turn out to be. The other thing that happens in that story is that Olive, despite everything, and this is, of course, what we call the Stockholm Syndrome, becomes attracted to the young boy who is holding her hostage and, again, that's one of those stories where if you know about Olive's relationship with Christopher and the fact that Christopher, by this time, has moved away and been a tremendous disappointment to her, you can begin to understand, aside from the Stockholm Syndrome where hostages begin to identify or be attracted to their hostage holders, beyond that, you can see something of why, at the end of the story, we find out that Olive is knitting clothing for this young boy who is now in prison.
MAITLANDOf course, this young boy covered her up when she is sitting there half naked on the floor as a hostage with her hands behind her back and her hospital gown comes undone. And Henry points this out to everybody in the room who immediately starts staring at Olive's corpulent nakedness. But so I think, in a way, she's repaying him. But, again, I do think it's the teacher, the maternal force and I just have to say that, Jackson, I'm so glad to hear you say that you thought it was amusing because I was roaring out loud during that chapter.
MAITLANDAnd I thought, oh, my god, there's something wrong with me that I'm finding this so funny. But it was truly hysterical.
LEHRERI was just gonna say, I wouldn't even call it the Stockholm Syndrome. It's just too much of a pattern of Olive with every young man -- every wounded bird, whether they're young girls, which she does with this young anorexic girl, or these young men...
REHMWho are really after drugs.
LEHRERWho are really after drugs. And this one -- but she sees the wounded bird. She thinks it's -- and he's going to kill himself and she says, oh, don't.
REHMAt 27 before the hour, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And it's time to open the phones. First, to Syracuse, New York, good morning, Elaine, you're on the air.
ELAINEGood morning, Diane. I think I'm more excited to speak to you than I am to talk about "Olive Kitteridge."
REHMWell, we're happy to have you. Go right ahead.
ELAINEWell, thanks for everything, Diane. My comment is probably global because your guests are just doing such a remarkable job. I read the book a while back and I didn't know anything about it, but I remember that I squirmed through the whole book and one of your guests used the word, juxtaposition and I thought, chapter one was an obnoxious person and then how you get drawn in with her humanity and how I, as a woman, could identify with her.
ELAINEI think she's going to be one of these characters for all times. I would like to end with something that I heard, a comment about Beatles music and what they did great. And it was that it was unpredictable and ever changing, even if you just took a song, their songs were unpredictable and ever changing and morphing in what they did. And I think that that's what this book is like.
REHMElaine, thanks so much for your call. What do you think about the analogy, the comparison between "Olive Kitteridge," these stories and Beatles music?
BRYERWell, I think that's one of the things that makes us all human, that you can't ever pin us down. I mean, we tend to use glib phrases about one another and they're never sufficient. And I think what this book is, is an answer to all glib linguistic analyses of people.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call, Elaine. Now, to Durham, New Hampshire, Julian, you're on the air.
JULIANHi. I was calling in regard to the concept of a series of connected short stories reading like a novel. I used to teach Hemmingway's "In Our Time," his first collection of stories as a novel, primarily about a character named Nick Adams. But whenever Hemmingway wrote about a character who was not sympathetic to him or not the kind of person that young Ernest Hemmingway wanted to be, he gave the character another name. But there's a progression from childhood through adult life from Indian camp with the birth to big Two-hearted River, one of the fishiest fishing stories every written.
JULIANBut I would be interested if the author of "Olive Kitteridge" had read "In Our Time."
REHMDo you have any idea?
BRYERI can't believe that she hasn't, but -- 'cause almost everybody has. But yeah, I think that's a pretty good analogy. I'd just like to say one thing about the last story in the book, which really does provide a coda. One of the things you have to notice about the last story is that Olive ends up, at the end of that story, with a man, who is himself, not a Maine person. He has come from outside of person and he's a Republican besides.
BRYERAnd, you know, here's this woman who has so much contempt for the outsiders and who certainly has contempt for Republicans. And the fact that she ends up with this man goes to show that we always make compromises and we always make do and we always find our comforts in places where we least suspect we can find them.
REHMShe was quite faithful going to the nursing home each day where Henry had lost pretty much everything. He could barely see. He couldn't hear. He didn't do much besides sit there and yet, she went every single day.
MAITLANDAnd she called him. That was truly the most touching thing is that when she goes to visit her son in New York, she calls Henry every day to give him a description of -- not even knowing whether he can hear her or understand a word she's saying.
MAITLANDWhich speaks to her loneliness and emptiness.
REHMIndeed. We're talking about the book "Olive Kitteridge," by Elizabeth Strout. When we come back, more of your calls. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We'll go right back to the phones this time to Nancy in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Nancy, I gather you have read "Olive Kitteridge" rather closely.
NANCYOh, I have, Diane, and I'm thrilled to be talking with you, but I'm having a driveway moment because I have to tell you that you're all wrong about Olive.
REHMOkay. How so?
NANCYAs I read the book, all I could imagine was that her ultimate purpose in life was control. With all of the people that she felt sympathy or empathy or wanted to help, she was, in a sense, in control of all of these issues. And as a teacher, no matter how...
REHMAnd especially a math teacher.
NANCYI didn't -- I can't understand that.
REHMI said, especially as a math teacher.
NANCYYeah, absolutely. That was my next point. As a teacher, you are in control in a, hopefully, a very lovely way, but you are in control. And all the way through the book, Christopher, she couldn't control, but he didn't fight back. He just took off.
BRYERYeah, but I think it's more complicated than that, as relationships always are.
BRYERThere was a wonderful moment on an interview program with Elizabeth Strout that I heard where an anorexic girl called in, this woman said she'd been an anorexic for 20 years and that moment in that story when Olive talks to the anorexic girl, said this anorexic girl on this call-in, Olive said the one thing to her that she wished somebody had said to her. Now, you know, you can talk about control. You can talk about -- you're absolutely right. I'm a teacher. We love to control.
BRYERBut she meant a great deal to that anorexic girl at that moment. And so regardless of what the motive is, it works.
LEHRERAnd she even talks about control.
REHMShe talks about control herself. I think you've made good points, Nancy. I think that everybody sort of see this book through their own perspective.
REHMAnd you've seen it in that way. I thank you for calling this morning. I want to get to one of what I consider the most dramatic moments in this book. She is in Brooklyn. She has been asked to come to Brooklyn to stay with her son and his second wife. She tells Christopher before she goes. He asks her to come and stay for a week because he needs her there to care for children. She says, before she even goes, after three days, I stink like a fish. And then, again, she gets insulted by something that Christopher and his wife say.
MAITLANDActually, it's the ice cream.
REHMOr don't say.
REHMNo, it's not ice cream.
MAITLANDIt's the butterscotch sauce.
REHMIt's the butterscotch.
MAITLANDThey go out for a sundae and butterscotch sauce dribbles down the front of her blouse. She takes it off and thinks she's going to wash it and, all of a sudden, it comes back to her about an, oh, this kind of dithering aunt of hers and she realizes that they don't respect her enough to tell her that she's dribbled down the front of her blouse. And the humiliation of realizing that they didn't accord her that care and respect to tell her that she should clean it off so infuriates her that this moment of reunion with her son is completely destroyed for her and she decides to leave summarily.
REHMAnd so "mom, stop it, Christopher says. And she says, it's time for me to go home. I stink like fish. Christopher shook his head slowly, I knew this was going to happen. I knew something would trigger things off. What are you talking about, Olive said. I'm simply telling you it's time for me to go home. Then, come inside, Christopher said. I guess I don't need my son telling me what to do, Olive said. But when Chris when back inside murmuring to Anne, his wife, she did get up. She joined them in the kitchen.
REHMShe sat in a chair by the table. She had hardly slept and felt shaky. Did something happen, mom? Anne said. You weren't going to leave for a few more days. She'd be damned if she was going to tell them how they let her sit there and dribble stuff down herself. They've had treated their own kids better than that. Wiped the mess off. But her, they just let sit there. And Christopher says, I asked you to come visit because I wanted to see you.
REHMAnne wanted to meet you. We were hoping we could just having a nice time. I was hoping things had changed, that this wouldn't happen. But mom, I'm not going to take responsibility for the extreme capriciousness of your moods. If something happened to upset me, you should tell me. That way, we can talk. You've never talked your whole damn life. Why are you starting now? It was the therapist, she realized suddenly.
REHMOf course, that foolish Arthur fellow." They had been seeing a therapist and he, Christopher, had been talking about his mother and how she resented it.
LEHRERYes. But you also see there what she's been like to Christopher because he goes ahead and says, you're paranoid. You're this way one minute.
REHMYou hit me.
LEHRERYeah. You hit me and, you know, social workers would now come to the house. But -- and then he goes on at the -- 'cause I love the part -- you say you want to leave, then accuse me of kicking you out, which is part of that same scene. In the past, it would make me feel terrible, but I'm not going to feel terrible now. I mean, that's what she has done. And the fact that it dripped down, remember, this is a household which everything drips down.
REHMYeah, it's a mess.
LEHRERI mean, they have a very, you know, loose household.
BRYERIt just depends on your point of view. I mean, the way she sees herself and the way he sees her are completely different.
REHMBut instead of arguing with her, he takes on this very calm rational tone. He doesn't fight. He just said, fine, I'll call the car for you and the car will come and take you to the airport. She is devastated.
MAITLANDYeah, and after the extreme hopefulness, the truly most hopeful and beautiful part of the book for me is when she's anticipating that visit with the son and suddenly, even up in the plane -- which she's never been in a plane by herself before -- just the beauty of the world and this moment of possibility stretches before her, the kind of new optimism, and to see it dashed at the end is just so tragic.
REHMTotally. All right. Let's go to Mary who's in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mary, you're on the air.
MARYThank you, Diane. My comment is I enjoy this author. I have read her other novels and enjoyed them more than, "Olive Kitteridge." I don't like Olive. I read the book and maybe a second read would help me. I gave the book to a friend and said, you know, I'm recommending this book, but I really don't like the main character. But my comment is, I think Ursula Hegi does a better job at this idea of combining short stories and novels. The book I really enjoy is "Floating In My Mother's Palm."
MARYAnd you can take any one of those chapters and just pick it up separate from the other ones and get a really in-depth look at characters. And I think that I'm not sure if your guests have read that book, but I really think that Ursula Hegi does a much better job at combining these short stories.
REHMAll right. Kate?
LEHRERWell, I think this is truly just magnificent. And full disclosure, Elizabeth Strout did give me a wonderful blurb for my last book so that said, I should say that, I guess. But the fact is that this book, I think, has much more power. I don't want to get into comparisons. That's not fair. But I feel that I know every character in a story when she does a story. Any of the main characters that are highlighted, I feel I've gone very deep with them.
REHMAll right. Mary, thanks for you call. And now to Allison in Bellport, New York. You're on the air.
ALLISONI'd just like to say that, to me, one of most interesting aspects of this book is the way Olive is able to be both physically abusive to her child and also to love him very much. And I think, you know, people are very, very strange. I think Elizabeth Strout shows that very brilliantly.
REHMI think you're right, Allison, and I think that one of the fascinating aspects about this is that Olive somehow doesn't realize until toward the very end why her son is so angry with her. And he is angry.
MAITLANDThere's a great scene when Olive calls Henry to tell him about her visit in New York and she says -- mostly recounting what's going on in Brooklyn to him and, of course, he can't answer because he's had this massive stroke. And she says to him, "today's their wedding anniversary. They're okay. But she's dumb, just like I thought. They're in therapy. She hesitated, looking around. You're not to worry about that, Henry. In therapy, they go straight after the mother. You come out smelling like a rose, I'm sure."
REHMWhich is certainly the case most times.
MAITLANDSo she doesn't see it as her problem. They go straight after the mother.
BRYERLike most people, she can see everything around her much more clearly than she can see herself.
LEHREROf course. And her temper and her anger, she does, at one point, say, I know it comes up in me that squid juice. I think she calls it, you know, the black ink comes out that she can't -- but she just kind of excuses it. It's just part of her. You take it because, again, you don't compromise. You don't let your hunger -- don't be afraid of your hunger. You just do what you -- say what you want to.
REHMLet's now go to Avalon, New Jersey. You're on the air, Mickey.
MICKEYYes, Diane. I'm so honored to be on your show.
REHMOh, so glad to have you. Thank you.
MICKEYThank you. "Olive Kitteridge" is the selection of my book club and the book club is called The Literasea book club, and literacy with the last three letters are S-E-A because we're so close to the Atlantic Ocean. And our meeting is on July 21 so this is absolutely fabulous. I just want to make a comment to dispute Kate. And I know that's now what you do. But I started reading this book and I was distressed and down and upset and I thought it was so depressing.
MICKEYAnd I realized as I got into the stories that my distress was now coming from the fact that I didn't want the stories to end. And every time I turned the page and saw a new title, I was so saddened because I wanted to go further with the characters. I could read every one of these 13 stories in a 300-page novel. I think she's marvelous and I thank your guests because I do need to go back and read the entire book again.
REHMGood, Mickey. And I'm sure you'll have a very rich discussion at your book club.
MICKEYWe're gonna have a great time. Thank you so much, all of you.
REHMGo ahead, Kate.
LEHRERThis is Kate and I didn't say that. I think they're just wonderful. And, again, uplifting by the end, but I didn't see any of them as oppressive. Fascinating.
REHMAt 10 minutes before the hour, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One caller that we lost, Sally from Detroit, indicated that she felt Olive was depressed all the way through the book. What do you think?
BRYERWell, I just wanted to read -- everybody's reading things and this is a book that cries out to be read aloud. I love the moment when she's visiting this woman whose husband has just died and told her that her husband -- that her cousin has revealed to her on the day of the husband's funeral that she, the cousin, had an affair with the husband. And she says, "for a while, neither woman speaks." This is Olive talking to the widow.
BRYER"Then, Marlene says, pleasantly, I've been thinking about killing Carrie. She raises a hand her from lap and exposes a small paring knife lying on her green flowered dress. Oh, says Olive. Marlene bends over the sleeping Carrie and touches the woman's bare neck. Isn't this some major vein, she asks, and puts the knife flat against Carrie's neck, even poking slightly. Yeah, okay. Might want to be a little careful there. Olive sits forward. In a moment, Marlene sighs, sits back. Okay, here, and she hands the paring knife to Olive."
BRYERNow, of all the responses Olive could've had at that moment, might want to be a little careful there, is such a perfect moment. I mean, you know, instead of getting up and screaming and saying, let me call the police...
REHMRunning out of the room.
BRYERShe tries to handle the situation and she knows, in some way, exactly what to do.
REHMBut why, other than cruelty, which is part of Olive's character, why, other than cruelty, would she reveal to the widow that this had gone one?
LEHRERWell, it's Carrie who reveals. It's the drunken cousin who reveals to the widow that this happened.
LEHRERSo that's why….
REHMI had that wrong there, okay.
LEHRERYeah, that's why, yeah. So Olive's just sitting there with her, which is an unusual thing for Olive to do anyway.
REHMThe drunken Carrie, oh, god.
LEHRERBut the drunken Carrie has said, yes, I had -- but once she says, which is not, of course, what the widow believes anyway. And Olive knows how, probably, how she would respond and what should be done. I'm sure Olive thought about knives many times in her life.
MAITLANDYou know, actually there are three stories in which people sort of find out, very belatedly, that their spouse has been cheating on them or that there's been a betrayal behind their back, including one -- Angela, the piano player, finds out that her mother tried to seduce her boyfriend and the seemingly most happy couple, those Houghtons who she finds out her husband has been going to see a mistress in Florida.
MAITLANDAnd so I think this theme keeps coming up of people having these little secret romances.
REHMAnd I don't mean to, in any way, detract from the magnificence of this novel, but there is a sense of "Peyton Place" here. I mean, with all these interwoven characters, stories, affairs, unpleasantness, really absolutely extraordinary. Thank you all so much for joining us. This month, for our reader's review, Kate Lehrer, Leslie Maitland, Jackson Bryer. The book is "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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