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[203] Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

olive“—then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat, the new green of the fields, the broad expanse of water . . .” [202]

Olive Kitteridge is an unforgettable character. Heightened is the anticipation of when and how this tall, big-frame, brawny retired 7th grade math teacher, whom many revere and fear, makes her regal entrance in each of the episodes stitch together the novel. Although not an ambassador, nor is she a magnet of gossips, Olive Kitteridge seems to be savvy of of the town’s happenings. While she deplores the vicissitudes in Crosby, Maine, acquaintances, former colleagues, and students alike, all talk about her in an eye-rolling manner. She is like an axis around which these townfolks’ lives revolve, abiding her orbital without a chance to be rid of her stern scrutiny.

The heart of the novel is Olive’s family, which she presides over with a peremptory air. Her husband Henry, a retired pharmacist, finds his loyalty to the marriage both a blessing and a curse. Her son Christopher, an adult child, feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities, which she only believes as an expression of love, for she doesn’t like to be lonely.

She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people (other than her family).” [146]

The fear of death, its inescapable and indiscriminate consequence, hangs over everyone throughout the book. These episodes, unified by Olive Kitteridge’s presence and influence, ruminate on sickness, aging, and the different level of sadness children create for their parents and spouses implement on one another. As these town people grapple their problem from domestic issue, bitter regret, unresolved loss of loved ones, love affairs, anorexia, to mental illness, Olive Kitteridge comes to terms with of shortcomings—that she has been clueless of her bluntness, which has offended people. A night of contingency allows her husband to confide in her his true feelings, which have forever altered their relationship and the way they see one another.

And while Olive Kitteridge had never in anyone’s memory felt inclined to be affable, or even polite, she seemed less so now as this particular June rolled around. [104]

What her son says are like splinters of wood shoved into her heart:

You kind of behave like a paranoid, Mom . . . And I never see you taking any responsibility for it. One minute you’re one way, the next—you’re furious. It’s tiring, very wearing for those around you. [229]

The episodic form Strout adopts not only allows readers to see Olive Kitteridge from different set of eyes, it also accentuates her power of influence on the community. Her complexities—at times in denial, at times thoughtful, at times patient, at times perceptive, and at times capricious—are fully realized in many permutations. She does not physically appear in some of these scenes but her allure resonates far more intensely than in person. For these people stand in awe of even the thought of her.

Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology, and Jane had kept her distance. [130]

The episodes mandate a constant effort of renewal in perceiving the relationship between a wide of cast of characters on the readers’ part, because their association is not immediately established during the first half of the book. Through the conflicts and tragedies, which are rendered very ordinary, the novel reminds us that even sad moments in life are gifts and which make life worth living. Natural landscapes are often metaphoric. They deliver a subtle message of hope, that a happier, more fulling life might only require a different perspective and change of attitude, like leaning forward, and peering out the window to the blue sky and broad expanse of water as I quoted at the beginning of this review.

286 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] Oliver Kitteridge is the winner of Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

21 Responses

  1. This has been on my list for awhile, as it was nominated as a top 10 book for 2008 by EW. The fact that it is prize-winning now is just the cherry on top. I look forward to reading it!

  2. I saw that it just won the Pulitzer Prize and I’m really looking forward to experiencing this book for myself. It’s in my huge library loot pile!!

  3. Linked stories sound like a new concept for me. Usually I lack that attention span to “start over”, if you know what I mean, a new story when I just get used to and comfortable with the characters. Olive Kitteridge does sound very intriguing. It will rise to the top of the pile.

  4. I really enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge. I agree with John – linked stories are a new concept for me, but they really worked. Seeing Olive through the eyes of so many different people gave a real insight into her true character. I think we’ll see a lot more of these linked short stories in the future.

  5. Reading Olive Kitteridge was a different kind of reading experience for me, too. The connected stories presenting different views of Olive worked very well for me. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year!

  6. As you know, I’m not really a short story reader, but I tend to like collections more in which the stories are all connected. I think the idea of examining a single person from multiple perspectives (in different stories) is really cool, and I would like to give this one a try. This sounds like it is definitely worth a reader’s time… I look forward to it!

  7. I really got stalled in this one. I got about 50 pages in and lost interest. About three days later, it won the Pulitzer. So much for my taste! 🙂 Anyway, your review makes me want to try again.

  8. This has been on my radar since it came out! I love that one short sentence you posted about her not liking to be alone. I think this book will remind me of some people I know.

  9. Sandy:
    This book has made the book list of most magazines. Read it and you will see why. 🙂

  10. Staci:
    The book has been very popular here and I had a difficult time finding a new copy to buy. Hope you enjoy it. 🙂

  11. John:
    Most of the characters are actually well-established and contained in the individual stories. Some of them recur in another episode. You will enjoy reading them and figuring out the relationship between them and Olive Kitteridge.

  12. Jackie (Farm Lane Books):
    I agree about the permutations. At the end I see her as one well-rounded, fully-developed character who is actually quite admirable despite her insensitivities.

  13. JoAnn:
    I will make a point to look for more books written in this fashion. She is certainly an unforgettable. After I put it down, I rummage through my thought of her before penning the review. This book will stay with me for sure.

  14. Steph:
    This literary device works very well in this book. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts. 🙂

  15. Jessica:
    I hope you’re pick it up again. The first couple chapters were a bit cloudy because I had to figure out all the relations. But once I read past them I was on the binge. I await with such anticipation of what she will enter in a new episode.

  16. iliana:
    It’s true Iliana…the character of Olive is so true-to-life. Sometimes she is funny, sometimes she is so jaded and guarded…so real. I hope you’ll enjoy the book as much as I do. 🙂

  17. Your review makes me want to read this book. And I usually like linked stories.

  18. Pollyanna:
    It’s actually a quick read, characters are very memorable.

  19. […] A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook Fizzy Thoughts Farm Lane Book Blog Biblio File Nonsuch Book […]

  20. My post today is on this book, and I linked to your review. Thanks for introducing me to Olive!

  21. […] Memorable Character: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout One Book That Stays with Me: The Piano Teacher, Janice Y.K. Lee Most Tedious But […]

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