OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Book Quote:

“Olive Kitteridge was crying. If there was anyone in town Harmon believed he would never see cry, Olive was that person. But there she sat, large and big-wristed, her mouth quivering, tears coming from her eyes.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (JAN 19, 2010)

Big-wristed Olive Kitteridge is the imposing, even frightful, over-sized woman at the center of this novel. She lives in a small town on the coast of Maine, where traditionally people keep to themselves, living out lives of granite-like individuality. She trucks no silliness, has little patience for people she does not care for, which is virtually everyone, and has no problem speaking her mind, in fact seems genetically predisposed to it. She is a retired high school math teacher, who, her adult son tells her, was the “scariest teacher in the school.” She is one of those individuals you meet and wonder, how does a person get this way?

And yet, we are not repulsed by her. In fact, we root for her, seeing ever so slightly–and skillfully, I have to add–that she can be more human than first meets the eye. Can she take this humanity and nurture it? The reader hopes so. That would be a redemption we might expect. Yet, there are traits and ways of being that are so deep and developed that they can never be upended. Still, it is the beauty of how this story is drawn that the reader even wonders at such a thing as redemption. We root for Olive, but doubt her, dislike her, yet find something approaching kinship with her.

Olive lives with her loving and patient husband, Henry. Together they have a son, Christopher. The story spans an undisclosed period of years whereby Olive looses Henry, Christopher disappoints and moves away, and Olive is left alone in the village, surrounded by odd characters and old students, neighbors and enemies and a very small handful of friends. She daily passes the lovely house she and Henry built for Christopher, the place where he was to spend his life close to mother and father. But that did not happen and every day her anger grows. Her world was her son and he married a disagreeable wife who took him away and his house-home was sold. She has been abandoned by everyone. Or did she push?

There is a unique structure to this book, a structure, which I confess escaped me until the very end. This is a novel of thirteen short stories, which together form a highly informed narration and refreshing perspective on the protagonist, Olive. She is not at the center of each story chapter, but she is present, sometimes looming, sometimes passing through. If there is a failure with this technique it is slight and hinges on those few stories where she is just a pedestrian, crossing the stream of narration, a reflection in a mirror, so to speak. But even in these situations, we learn something more of her, of her community and her plight and thereby the story breaths afresh, albeit in an unconventional fashion. I like the technique very much. Although the narration follows a traditional sequential timeline, the reader gets the sense that you could take the stories in any order and the novel would work just as well. That is no small matter.

It is not hard to portray Olive as an unseemly curmudgeon. There are the neighbors she has offended, the shop keeper snubbed and professional peers put-off. But nothing is so painful as Olive’s break from her son, a break of her own making. After Henry’s stroke, Olive visits Christopher and his new, second, wife, who seems lovely. But Olive says she is stupid. And she thinks her grandson, a toddler, an idiot. As I said, it is easy to dislike this woman. Finally, she takes offense at being assumed on duty, watching her grandson in a park, and announces she is leaving. When she remains steadfast in her decision, despite the pleadings of her son and daughter-in-law, they fold and give up arguing with her. Christopher who grew up subject to her mood swings, wants no more of her and her antics. He welcomes her to go. Olive cannot believe they are going to let her leave. “You’re kicking me out, just like that?” Olive said. Her heart pumping ferociously.” For the first time Christopher reacts to his mother with calm and intelligence:

“See, there’s an example,” Chris answered, calmly. Loading the dishwasher calmly. “You say you want to leave, then accuse me of kicking you out. In the past, it would make me feel terrible, but I’m not going to feel terrible now. Because this is not my doing. You just don’t seem to notice that our actions brings reactions.”

Yet, it is the beauty of how her story is written that we still find in her qualities which give us pause. In one chapter (short story) Olive visits a woman whose young neighbor, Nina, is also visiting. Olive enters the kitchen, takes a doughnut, and with characteristic bluntness, upon seeing Nina, says, “Who are you?” It is soon apparent that Nina is anorexic.

Olive finished the doughnut, wiped the sugar from her fingers, and said, “You’re starving.”
‘The girl didn’t move, only said, “Uh–duh.”
‘“I’m starving, too.” Olive said. The girl looked over at her. “I am,” Olive said. “Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?”
‘“You’re not starving,” Nina said with disgust.
‘“Sure I am we all are.”
‘“Wow,” Nine said, quietly. “Heavy.”

A few sentences later, Olive’s neighbor, Harmon, looks over at her. She is crying. “If there was anyone in town Harmon believed he would never see cry, Olive was that person.”

This is an intelligent, insightful book. The technique of constructing the novel over a series of short stories is well devised. It is an example of telling a good story well while carving out new technical territory. Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer prize for fiction. It was well deserved.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 517 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (September 30, 2008)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Elizabeth Strout
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other Pulitzer Prize Winners:


January 19, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Contemporary, Literary, NE & New York, Pulitzer Prize, Reading Guide, Short Stories, y Award Winning Author

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