Review Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Alfred A Knopf 2008, 270 pages
MOTIVATION for READING: This won the Pulitzer so I first heard about it at Bybee’s blog. She’s collecting them, I think. Not that I care one twit about the Pulitzer Prize winners, or anything. No, wait – that sounds too harsh. How about: Not that I follow book awards much, because I don’t. I like to let my whims decide what books I read. This book is set in Maine. I love Maine. I guess that’s it. Do I really need a reason?
WHAT’s IT ABOUT: First off, the cover/back-of-book-blurb* does not tell you in so many words that this is a collection of short stories. It says it’s a novel. Well, it ain’t my idea of a novel. But that doesn’t mean I was at all disappointed. All I can say is that we are introduced to a small town in Maine and a few of its inhabitants and visitors. All of these people are either married to Olive Kitteridge or had her for a math teacher in 7th grade or bumped into her in the street. Many of them love her, dislike her, wonder about her and/or give her no thoughts whatsoever. But the reader will come to appreciate this rough and tough yet tender lady. I know I did.
Time** jumps back and forth, too. Each story is but a capsule of a moment or an evening or months, even years. The first story was one of my favorites; it was about Henry, Olive’s husband and it is one that explores a memory of a relationship spanning decades, even if for the occasional birthday card. Complex, layered and private. And so sad!
Other favorite stories are the piano player at the restaurant along the river – Olive barely walks into a scene; in another, we are brought into a relationship ‘overlap’ of a shared rescue attempt between the hardware store guy, a widow (his mistress), and Olive; and the last haunting story that analyzes the differences between what we want out of life and how much we grasp at life however it comes to us.
Olive questions how we can complain when life doesn’t treat us ‘fair’ or ‘right’; we do what we can. In the first story, the reader is not introduced to Olive in a favorable light – she seems querulous: grouchy, hard to please. Yet the love her husband has for her is strong if not understandable, yet. We certainly warm up to her and how she thinks and how she reacts to people, place and things by the last page. We are only treated to a few glimpses of her teaching style but I think I would have loved to have her as a teacher; the memorable ones were those that pushed and shoved. Olive, to me, is actually a wonderful reminder to me to be a little less critical of myself and others. I am going to remember this Olive character for a long time.
The author’s style reminded me of Jhumpa Lahiri – the quiet, sharp insights to the human condition.
from page 141: “… not wanting to be reminded of what could happen to a family that had seemed as pretty and fresh as blueberry pie.”
and DO watch out for the doughnuts!! and sunglasses? missed this… see Dawn’s review at She is Too Fond of Books.
* I can’t verify that the back of the book doesn’t say short stories but I do recall trying to figure out if these were short stories before I opened it to start reading. I admit I could be totally incorrect about this.
** OK, maybe I just got confused and wasn’t paying attention. Good thing this isn’t for a grade. All the other reviews I’m reading (I like to NOT read reviews until I’m done writing my own) say the stories are in chronological order. And, I guess, I do have to agree that the last few stories are later in time. I give up now.