OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Unwittingly, I read two books in a row that have a lot in common: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, and Cost, by Roxana Robinson (reviewed here). Both books are set along the Maine coast and center around a middle-aged female protagonist. Both books make short jaunts to Brooklyn. Both deal with painful mother-son relationships, as well as aging, infidelity, and other family dynamics. And both books explore terribly sad topics.

But that’s where the similarities end, because in many ways these two books could not be more different. While Cost essentially follows four days in a family’s life over the course of 300 pages, Olive Kitteridge is a loosely connected collection of stories about a town in Maine, with each chapter focusing on a different storyline and taking place over thirty or more years. Roxana Robinson is an incredibly detailed writer, while Elizabeth Strout is the master of understatement. Her writing is so spare, so economical, that if you inadvertently miss a sentence, you might miss an entire plot development.

Strout I was a little late to the Olive Kitteridge bandwagon. While I have had the book for quite a while (FTC disclosure: I think it was a review copy, though I can’t remember), I just didn’t get to it until now. And of course, in the interim, it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for literature.  But now that I’ve read it, I am really glad that I did. I don’t always love short story collections, because I find them somewhat unsatisfying and often forgettable. But Olive Kitteridge avoids that pitfall, mostly because of the title character. She is a thread running through each of the stories, even the ones in which she appears only briefly. But she offers context and somehow makes the book cohere in a way that short story collections often don’t.

I also love the way Strout tells stories. Her spare writing, combined with her slow teasing out of plot, makes Olive Kitteridge a very compelling read. I felt myself wanting to forge ahead, to start the next chapter, just to see what was going to happen. While there is a lot of tragedy in Olive Kitteridge (something terrible happens to someone in pretty much every chapter), it’s not a horribly depressing book. It’s realistic, and sad in its commentary about the passages of life, but it’s still a very good book.

I think what I liked most about Olive Kitteridge is that Strout writes without judgment, accepting her characters as they are and, in the process, making her readers sympathetic to them, flaws and all.  Her book is ultimately about the human condition and its fragility, and the moments that make up – and end – lives.


  • October 13, 2009 - 11:55 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read either one of these but Olive has been on my list for awhile now. I think I held off on it because story collections really don’t do it for me but I know this one is slightly different.

  • October 14, 2009 - 8:06 am | Permalink

    I’m also not usually a fan of short stories, but this book stands out to me. I’m a fan of Strout’s other work, and I like the idea of the stories’ connection to one another. Very thoughtful review! Thanks for sharing this.

  • October 14, 2009 - 8:35 am | Permalink

    You aren’t the only one late in joining the bandwagon! I haven’t read it yet, but one of my book clubs may be reading it in the next month. I can’t wait. It’s one of those books that I rushed out to buy, but haven’t had a chance to read yet.

  • October 14, 2009 - 10:27 am | Permalink

    I’ve had this on my wish list ever since I read Booking Mama’s review. I’m glad to see you enjoyed it too.

  • Buppie
    October 14, 2009 - 2:11 pm | Permalink

    really, really thoughtful, intelligent review.

  • October 14, 2009 - 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Don’t you just love when books are related unintentionally?!

  • TLB
    October 14, 2009 - 8:13 pm | Permalink

    I loved this book. I thought the writing was pristine, and while the subjects were sad, it did not feel overwrought or overdramatic. I am looking forward to her next book.

  • October 15, 2009 - 8:45 am | Permalink

    I adored OLIVE KITTERIDGE and thought it was an amazing discussion book.

  • October 15, 2009 - 9:19 am | Permalink

    I also loved this book, in fact its my bookclubs pick for November.
    Can’t wait to read Cost, it’s getting good reviews.

  • October 15, 2009 - 11:14 pm | Permalink

    I read Olive this summer, and liked it so much that I plan to read Strout’s “Amy and Isabelle” soon (it’s not in short story form, I don’t think); it has high priority in my TBR pile!
    Great post on “Olive Kitteridge”, by the way!

  • November 1, 2009 - 11:02 am | Permalink

    Great review.

  • November 1, 2009 - 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanke, Care!

  • January 15, 2010 - 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I really loved this book!

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *