Tag Archives: Olive Kitteridge

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.

Guest Review: OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Thank you to EDIWTB reader Nancy West for this guest review of Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I’ve not read this book yet, but I want to.

Olive Several years ago, my book group discussed Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love. At one point, someone brought up the title: presumably it was an adjectival construction referring to love that endures, but was it possibly a word play meant also to draw upon the present participle – as in “How do we go about enduring love?”

Probably not, we decided; it seemed unlikely that the author of such a complex character-driven novel intended to distract readers (or book groups) with a clever word play, and we moved on quickly to a discussion of the novel itself. It is a long literary leap from the unforgettable page-turner by the highly acclaimed British novelist to Strout’s collection of interconnected stories about hard-on-their-luck folks in a midsized, rundown town in coastal Maine, but I found myself thinking back often to that earlier discussion. Strout’s book could indeed be called Enduring Love, drawing upon both meanings – because although the stories are ostensibly linked by the fact that they either center around Olive Kittredge herself or people with some connection, however specious, to the title character, the theme that truly connects the stories is how any of them, or presumably how any of us, endure love, as it grows old and complicated and tedious and distractible and… and on and on. Husbands endure obnoxious wives; wives endure cheating husbands. A young woman attempts to endure in a promising relationship despite the inescapable memories of her childhood; another young woman’s endurance is tested by her own self-destructiveness. An adolescent wonders if she can endure the peculiarities of her parents, peculiarities that drive her beloved older sister out of the house. Olive and Henry Kittredge endure the emotional fallout of being random victims of a horrendous crime; another couple their age has less success with endurance after crime rips their domestic life apart – because in their case, their child is the perpetrator. In one of the most interesting plot threads, Olive’s enduring love for her son is tested and tested again, with uncertain results.

Some survive; some do not. Perhaps the most compelling example of endurance, though, is the reader’s enduring affection for Olive. Though many others in this Maine harbor town find her to be odious, omniscient viewpoint enables us to understand her as they cannot, and to appreciate her as few can. Ultimately, we find ourselves rooting for nearly every character in this collection, hoping against fairly high odds that they can all survive, and endure, and that the love around which their lives are centered can somehow endure along with them.

Thanks again for the post, Nancy!

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

OK, I feel old. Some authors that I featured in the earlier days of this blog already have another book out, since the last time I wrote about them. And of course, I still haven’t read the first book I discussed.

Back in February 2007, I wrote about Elizabeth Strout’s book Abide With Me. I had read and enjoyed an earlier book by Strout called Amy and Isabelle, and thought that Abide With Me also looked good. Well, Strout has a third book out called Olive Kitteridge which is a collection of interconnected stories that, like her other books, takes place in a small New England town.

It was just reviewed by Entertainment Weekly. Here is the review:

StroutThe interconnected stories in Elizabeth Strout’s new book, Olive Kitteridge, follow small-town Maine folk, particularly the stolid, blunt schoolteacher of the title and her husband, Henry, the amiable local druggist. The tales meander with them through the years, weathering their attractions to other people; the adolescence and marriage of their son, Christopher; and finally Henry’s illness.

Sometimes the couple are at the center of the action; at other times, they hover on the fringes. Strout, thrifty as any Down Easter, conveys their marriage in the sparest language possible. When Henry wants to invite Denise, his young employee, for dinner, Olive tells him, ”Not keen on it.” But when he does so anyway — he has a crush on her — the tenuousness of their marriage surfaces in this exchange: ”For dessert they were each handed a blue bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sliding in its center. ‘Vanilla’s my favorite,’ Denise said. ‘Is it,’ said Olive. ‘Mine, too,’ Henry Kitteridge said.”

Through all her passive aggression, Olive emerges as an opinionated and often sad woman who imagines her own depression as ”a thing inside me…sometimes it swells up like the head of a squid and shoots blackness through me.” Her father committed suicide, and now Christopher suffers the same dark moodiness. The scene at his wedding, when Olive overhears the bride and her mother denigrating her dress, just might break your heart. Rarely does a story collection pack such a gutsy emotional punch. A

Any Strout readers out there?