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!


  1. This is not the kind of book that I would pick up on my own, but it sounds very interesting. Thanks for the review :)

  2. That is a great book to start with - especially as it has been waiting so long for you!

  3. Great review, thanks. I have had this one on my radar for awhile but never quite gotten to it.

  4. Thanks for the good review. I'll be on the lookout for the book.

  5. I also read Olive Kitteridge in December. I was sicker (with the flu) than I've ever before been, and the book seemed to match my mood.

    The writing is superb, but I didn't come away wanting to recommend it. It seemed devoid of hope. I likened it to Wendell Berry's Port William without the goodness. Too much suicide.

    The last story was my favorite. The way Olive softened made her much more likeable to me.

    I appreciated reading your review. Thank you.

  6. I have had this book on my shelf for several years, and have not yet read it. Very thought provoking review - it has made me want to dig it out. I read Strout's Amy and Isabelle last year, and it was really good. It packs a huge emotional whollop as well, especially if you're a person who has experienced a difficult or volatile relationship with your mother. I would recommend it, but with the caveat that it will hit very close to home at times.

  7. I really liked Strout's Abide With Me when I read a couple of years ago, but I usually don't like short stories. So I've been holding off on this one. Maybe.

    My thoughts on Abide With Me:

  8. I do love a multiple point of view novel. This one sounds great.