Book Review: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

AOlive Kitteridgebout the Book

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life – sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition – its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

Format: eBook, paperback (270 pp.)  Publisher: Pocket Books
Published: 4th July 2008                        Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Story

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My Review

Olive Kitteridge was my read for this month’s theme of The BookBum Club – New Year, New Author.  Although I have several books by Elizabeth Strout on my bookshelves (real and virtual), I’d never actually read one so this was a great opportunity to rectify that omission. The book is also on my TBR Pile Challenge list which was an extra motivation for selecting it.

The book is subtitled A Novel in Stories and in some of the stories, Olive is the main character but in others she has the equivalent of a walk-on part.    At first, Olive comes across as direct, bordering on unpleasant, but gradually the reader gets a sense that in fact she is remarkably astute; she just has no time for people who try to put on an act.  ‘He is like her that way, can’t stand the blah-blah-blah.’  Olive also shows herself to be sensitive to other’s moods and needs.  In ‘Starving’, Olive’s encounter with a distraught girl produces ‘a kind of warm electricity, something astonishing and unworldly in the feeling of the room’.

As the book progresses, we learn of the many tragedies, challenges and disappointments in Olive’s life – truly she ‘has lived through her own sorrows’ – and I found myself sympathising with her simple desire to be a valued part of her son’s life and admiring her loyalty and devotion ‘in sickness and in health’ to her husband, Henry.  Looking back, Olive regrets not celebrating the small moments of happiness that occur in life – a walk in the crisp autumn air, holding hands with her husband, Henry.  ‘Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it.’   A message for us all there.

I found some of the stories bleak, many thought-provoking, others heart-warming and hopeful.  In every case, I felt as though I was reading about real people.  I came to know their habits, their likes and dislikes.  I could also imagine myself on the streets of Crosby.  This ability to create realistic characters and an authentic sense of place is the author’s real achievement, I think.

In my edition, the last story was ‘The Burgess Boys’, which is the title of another book by Elizabeth Strout.   This confused me a bit because it didn’t feature Olive at all so I can only assume it was intended to be an introduction to this later novel.  The penultimate story, ‘River’, certainly seems a more fitting and satisfying conclusion to the novel.   From feeling quite ambivalent about Olive after the first few chapters, I grew to understand her, admire her and, by the end of the book, feel a real affection for her.  Olive is a survivor and for me the lasting message of the book is the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.  May we all share this feeling: ‘Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life.’

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In three words: Intimate, acutely-observed, insightful

Try something similar…Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro (click here to read my review)

Elizabeth StroutAbout the Author

Elizabeth Strout is the author of several novels, including: Abide with Me, a national bestseller and BookSense pick, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England. In 2009 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book Olive Kitteridge. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker. She teaches at the Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University of Charlotte.

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