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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TBR Challenge 2018

Throwback Thursday: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey


Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk. It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago. If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.

Today I’m reviewing a book that I only recently acquired but that was published back in 2012. It’s one of those books where you feel you must be the last person in the world to get around to reading it. It’s The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

The Snow ChildAbout the Book

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart – he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm, she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone – but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.

Format: ebook (423 pp.)                   Publisher: Headline/Tinder Press
Published: 1st February 2012          Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

Followers of my blog (hello, you 500 or so lovely people) will know that I’m not a real fan of books with a fantasy or supernatural element. I do realise that statement will be anathema to an awful lot of people!   However, if the story is well-told, has wonderful characters and a superb sense of place then I too can fall in love with a story which also has a mystical or supernatural component. As The Snow Child had those first three things (in abundance), I’m happy to say the aspect of the story which is in essence a retelling of a Russian folktale didn’t mar my enjoyment of the book overall.

Whether the child that appears following the construction of the snow girl by Mabel and Jack is a real girl or the snow girl come to life didn’t really become the focus of the book for me. What I really fell in love with was Mabel and Jack, their life together and the author’s depiction of the harsh but beautiful Alaskan landscape. I really loved that we get to see a relationship between two older people and that, despite the pressures of trying to eke out a living in the wilds of Alaska and their shared grief at not being blessed with a child of their own, there are still moments of tenderness between them. I grew fond of their idiosyncrasies such as Mabel’s habit of waiting until dinner was served before broaching a difficult subject (so Jack’s beans got cold again).  And I loved their moments of playfulness – snowball fights, making snow angels, ice-skating, dancing.

The descriptions of the landscape of Alaska were really wonderful, conveying both its beauty, isolation and its dangers.

‘The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness. It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.’

There many other things I enjoyed about The Snow Child:

  • The picture of daily life
  • Esther and George – larger than life characters and true friends to Mabel and Jack
  • The sense of community and the willingness of neighbours to come together when help is needed
  • The sheer courage, resilience and determination of pioneers like Mabel and Jack, and Esther and George in attempting to carve out a living in such an unforgiving environment
  • The celebration of ‘indoor’ skills like preserving, baking and sewing and ‘outdoor’ skills like trapping, tracking, foraging
  • The wisdom of Mabel’s sister, Ada, in her letters:

‘We are allowed to do that, are we not…? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?’

‘In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.’

I’m grateful to Zuky, who runs the wonderful Book Bum Book Club on Goodreads, for coming up with the theme for December of Baby, It’s Cold Outside that motivated me to read The Snow Child.   It’s a lovely book, full of magical moments and deserving of the praise it has received.

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In three words: Magical, atmospheric, emotional

Try something similar…The Good People by Hannah Kent (click here to read my review)

Eowyn IveyAbout the Author

Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and an international bestseller. Her newest novel To the Bright Edge of the World was released in August 2016. Eowyn was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters.

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