No 578 Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Following on from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and The Sorrows of An American by Siri Hustvedt, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is my first experience with an author who I feel that I really should have read a long time ago, because the strength of her writing is quite astonishing.

olive kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is a “novel in stories” one of my favourite genres and it brings to vivid life a small, provincial community on the coast of Maine. The stories here may be provincial in setting, but in scope, they are universal.

Some stories are quiet and some dramatic; most feature a betrayal of sorts but some are hopeful, occasionally romantic. A young man contemplates suicide while a lounge singer comes face to face with a lost love. There is a hostage taking at a hospital and the funeral reception of a man whose wife has just learned that he cheated on her.

The presence of Olive Kitteridge, a seventh-grade math teacher and the wife of Henry, the town’s pharmacist, links all these 13 stories. A large woman, overbearing and often rude, she is the cog at the centre of the novel’s wheel. Many of the stories are directly about Olive and her relationship with her husband and her son Christopher while in others she is a peripheral presence. It is interesting to note that the stories that are the strongest are those that feature Olive the most, cementing the understanding that she is a formidable and complex character.

Formidable and complex she may be, but at the start of the book, Olive simply is not nice. Even her son, who marries and moves state to get away from her says, ‘You can make people feel terrible’, but as the book continues, our understanding of Olive deepens.

She can be horrible, but she can also be kind, thoughtful and introspective. She may have a difficult relationship with her son, but it is clear that she loves him more than she can ever express. Her relationship with her husband, a kind man who clearly adores her, is complex and difficult, but when he needs her most, she does not let him down.

There were days – she could remember this – when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. 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. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure.

Her compassion for strangers shines through, from a young man contemplating suicide, to a girl suffering from anorexia, and what we come to see is a woman with extreme empathy, but a clear-eyed empathy that is totally free of sentimentality. Olive sees the world as it is and she calls it so.

When the girl with anorexia questions how Olive could also be starving, her response cuts to the heart of the human condition.

“Sure I am. We all are.”

Olive Kitteridge understands life and she understands herself. She knows she has a bad temper and a tendency to ruin things. She knows that she pushes people away and she regrets this. She is aware that life is a series of moments, which should be cherished, but often are not until it is too late.

The structure of Olive Kitteridge is a beautiful balancing act. I was about a third of the way through before I realised that is was actually a book of short stories. Each story stands on its own providing moments of insight and clarity, but then read within the whole, they combine to create that deeper, complicated exploration of character and place you get in a novel. Also, by offering the reader different perspectives through different stories, Strout offers a wider, broader picture of the woman and the town in which she lives, exploring what people believe to be true of themselves and what they see in others. One of the most powerful moments, in a book filled with powerful moments, is when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law talking about her and realises just how she is being perceived.

It is a brave move to have such a strong character and to be willing to let her take a backseat in some stories, but with each new tale, Strout adds a little bit more to our perception of Olive, meaning that by the end, we come to care for this difficult woman.

She remembered was hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed.

Olive Kitteridge is a complex, moving and sometimes dark book, exploring self-awareness, loneliness and dependency. Like her titular character, Strout is clear-eyed and unsentimental. Life is hard, there is no point in pretending otherwise, but those moments of connection and revelation are what make it worth living.

It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.


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Number Read: 169

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The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

34 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Like you I loved this book. As a character Olive fascinated me ( and at times irritated me!!). I’d agree that one of the really impressive things in this book is how she carries off those parts of the story where Olive is on the periphery. On the back of this I went on to read My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible and those books of mid-Town America are every bit as wonderful as Olive K is!


  2. I very rarely recommend film adapatations of books but there’s an exellent HBO miniseries with Frances McDormand as Olive. McDormand is so good it’s as if she was born to play the part. It took a fellow Strout fan to convince me to watch it and I’m so glad I did.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a beautiful review, Cathy. Thank you! Olive already feels like a friend. I haven’t read the book and I share your sentiment now. I should have read it long ago. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This book has been languishing on my shelf for several years! I must get to it. Maine is one of my favorite places to go and I think I can identify with Olive, ‘unsentimental and clear eyed’.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Olive Kitteridge was the second Elizabeth Strout novel I read. I enjoyed My Name is Lucy Barton but completely loved Olive Kitteridge. Such a wonderful sense of the community and the passage of time. I have two more Strout novels waiting.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Several of my blogging acquaintances seem to have been discovering Elizabeth Strout’s writing this week. I am so glad. I think she is magnificent – never a misplaced word. Something I would like to do at some point is read all her books through in chronological order because they are all linked by character.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Those are very similar thoughts to the ones I had when I was reading this – for example not realising it was a series of short stories until about a third of the way in, and the complexity of her understanding herself, but not being able to change the way she behaved and the effect she had on people, and the power of the moment when she sees herself as others see her. A beautifully crafted book.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved this book. I heard a show on the CBC radio just a little while ago discussing this book and how much they liked it. And then they gave a Canadian equivalent to the book – Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson – which I haven’t read yet. Just in case, like me, you’re interested in more! (Well, you know, when you’ve read the rest of your 746…)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. So many people whose opinion I respect and tastes I share have told me how wonderful Strout’s books are, yet I don’t seem to have fallen for her yet. I am now willing to accept that if she falls into my hands in a charity shop, she will come home with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Olive Kitteridge seems to be enjoying a renaissance lately. What’s going on? Yours is the second log review I’ve read today. I read it back before it won all the awards and loved it. I’m still hesitant to watch the t.v. series, but maybe I’ll get to it over the holidays.


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