Friday, January 6, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

For some reason, right around the holidays, I always seem to read a book (or books) that pack an emotional wallop. Maybe it’s because I usually have a couple days off work so I feel I can tackle something engrossing. Maybe with all the holiday cheer I feel armed against depressing fiction. This year, I picked up my Back to the Classics award winner – Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. I bought the book soon after, and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since.

Olive Kitteridge is not a novel, not exactly. It’s a collection of short stories centered around Olive and her family and friends, solid New Englanders, inhabitants of a small town somewhere in coastal Maine. Olive is middle-aged to elderly over the course of the book. A retired school teacher, she is not the main character in most of the stories, but somehow or another, she figures into them all. We see her from many different points of view, and eventually we get a very good picture of the woman. She is exceptionally three-dimensional. (I know that doesn't actually make sense, but it will if you read the book.) In some of the stories she is hard and unlikeable and in others, achingly vulnerable. Remarkably, in these short stories, you not only end up feeling that you know Olive inside and out, but you also become very well acquainted with a fair number of her acquaintances. The insights into human nature (as demonstrated in the examples of the friends and family) are that good.

The writing is Pulitzer Prize caliber. Every detail is perfect. Every interaction is exquisite. Strout is able to capture a wide spectrum of interpersonal relationships in all their joy, pain, confusion, love, and inevitable loss. The book was, at the same time, emotionally draining and emotionally rewarding.

So my Back to the Classics Challenge is off to a wonderful start. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!