Friday, May 22, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout, the author of this book, is the most recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for "...distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life" I was quickly able to secure a copy from my local library and began reading it almost immediately. This is the first "recent" Pulitzer Prize work I have read, but I will soon be reading several others for my summer school class this year (The Road - 2007 winner and Gilead - 2005 winner).

The summary of the book, as it appears on the Pulitzer Prize website, is as follows:

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. — from the publisher

I wish I could say that I loved this book. I would definitely feel more scholarly if that were the case. However, I did LIKE the book, and I am finding that I still ponder its themes and characterizations even a week after finishing it. Perhaps that is one criteria for a literary award: not only is the book well written, with an intriguing storyline and developed characters, but the book continues to impact the reader long after it has been re-shelved.

While I think it is important for the reader to begin a work of fiction with some level of expectation and/or prediction (this is one of my definitions of active reading - and it is makes reading interesting for me) -- I am discovering that sometimes my expectations get in the way of my true appreciation for the book. This happened with Godmother (as reviewed earlier this week) - and I think that is also what happened with Olive. I knew that Olive was a retired 7th grade teacher ---- I am a middle/high school teacher. I expected the book to involve certain flashbacks of her teaching career and perhaps give me some inkling as to what I can expect when my teaching days are over. While the reader is given a few short snippets of Olive's days as a math teacher, the book rarely focuses exclusively on Olive's life. Instead each chapter of the book focuses on a different resident of Cosby, Maine and Olive is mentioned (sometimes more prominently than others) only as it pertains to her relationship to their story.

There is a very loose thread of chronological events between each chapter in the story. For example, Chapter 1 focuses on Henry and Olive Kitteridge's lives when they are both fully employed: Henry as a pharmacist and Olive as a school teacher. They have one son, Christopher, who seems to be reared mostly by his rather domineering mother. I was immediately endeared to Henry's character as the kind, caring, relaxed husband who cares as much for his fellow workers and customers as he does for his family. Conversely, I was at first repulsed by Olive's character. She seems far too demanding, self-centered and outspoken for my taste.

Over the course of the novel we discover that while Olive is indeed tactless and opinionated, we also discover that she is compassionate, caring and sentimental. Olive has a true love for her son, and is devastated when his choices take him away from the house they built for him to the sunny beaches of California. Christopher never does return home, and this leaves Olive heart-broken. While Olive may seem to "wear the pants in the family" she is incredibly loyal to her husband despite medical conditions which leave him physically and emotionally absent from her. We also catch glimpses of Olive's compassion for her students - especially those who have come from troubled homes. She doesn't seem to forget a face - nor a hardship. Her bluntness is oftentimes, I think, misunderstood. This is a caring woman who has a lot to give, but sometimes is lacking the ability to show her true feelings in a way that the world around her comprehends.

This is only the 2nd time that I have read a novel in this "collection of short stories" format. The first time was over spring break when I read Christopher Barzak's novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing. It takes some getting used to - at least for me. While I know my preference will always be for the continuous story of the conventional novel, I think I would like to try to read more of this style of writing. While I began each new chapter with the feeling of literary "whiplash" (new characters - new setting - not quite sure how it all ties together) -- I am intrigued how the author fully develops the characters and the plot very quickly, while at the same time providing the necessary tie-in to the novel as a whole. I cannot imagine that this is easy to do, and I admire Strout's ability to accomplish this feat in a flawless manner.

Overall I would say that I enjoyed this book - and will probably come to realize that it is truly a great, enjoyable book as time goes on. I would rate the book 4 out of 5 stars.


  1. I'm definitely interesting in giving this one a try. A 4 out of 5 is a good rating.

  2. I have to agree with you about expectations. I had high expectations about Girls in Trucks. Unfortunately, the book didn't even come close. Of course, it is probably me and my senior citizen mentality. I do not feel it is necessary to use the same adjective (hint, it starts with f) over and over and over or in fact to use it as a verb. This really took away from the story, such as it was, for me.

  3. I think I had similar opinions to you on this book. I didn't love it, and as I was reading it I thought it was OK. It got better as it progressed, and I really admired the way it was written. The short story format was very clever. I have never read a book like this before. I didn't realise that TLWSWK was written in the same way - I am really looking forward to reading that now (hopefully in the next few weeks)

    I appreiciate the skill of this novel much more now I have finished it, but I agree with you - 4/5.

  4. I have this book on my TBR shelves. I'm looking forward to reading this one. I will have to keep in mind your thoughts about expecting more when I read it. I understand that feeling. Sometimes books just don't live up to our preconceived expectations or they go way beyond what we ever expected.

  5. I have taught literature at a college level for several decades. I thought Olive Kitteridge is a masterpiece.
    I too did not like the character of Olive in the first story, then gradually grew to admire her. By the end of the book, I ached for her humanity.

  6. I popped over after seeing your comment on KGMom blog. I just finished "Olive Kitteridge" and for once, I thought the book lived up to the hype and more. I loved the writing style and while I didn't care much for Olive in the beginning, I came to understand and even like her.

    I could not put the book down and stayed up late reading it...something I rarely do.

    I'm glad I found your blog.

  7. I know exactly how you feel. There have been a couple of huge books that I just didn't get and I wondered what was wrong with me. Great review, as always.

  8. Hi Molly--thanks for the return visit.
    The very fact that you continue to think about Olive Kitteridge suggests it has potential to be a lasting book--dare I say "classic."
    I wrote about the book in my review of Olive Kitteridge.

  9. I think you're the first person I've heard say they didn't love this book and I'm SO glad for a kind of mixed review (too much praise sometimes overworks a book in my mind). I know what you mean about feeling more scholarly if you loved the book, but sometimes these types of books grow on you as time passes. Maybe that will be the case with this one.

  10. I just finished it. I didn't like Olive in the first "chapter" but liked her thereafter.

  11. I love this review! I, too, wish we would have had more of Olive as a teacher. Love the 'whiplash' concept you speak of.

  12. We just read this book for my book club, and I have to say, I loved it. The stories that did not include Olive as a central character were usually my least favorites. This is one of the best books I've read in awhile. Definitely worthy of all the high priase.


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