At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer's eyes, it's in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama -- desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love. At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn't always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive's own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse. As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life -- sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition -- its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.
Last night, or early this morning ... I finished reading Olive Kitteridge. I have had one of Elizabeth Strout's books in my TBR cyber stack for quite some time. I read so many positive comments about Olive that I leap-frogged over to this one, which won the Pulitzer
This book has an unusual presentation style or template, if you will. Each chapter is almost able to present itself as a free standing short story and at the same time also serves as a larger part of the theme of the entire book, which is the redemption of the main character, Olive Kitteridge.
This novel has some of the most wonderful moments of self-realization that I have ever read and they left me slightly stunned with admiration for both the character and the author, Ms. Strout.
I give this book four stars and recommend it very highly. I will give those of you who don't go in for quirky/strange characters a heads-up ... you WILL find/meet them in this fictional town in Maine. (That is the reason for four not five stars). I would love to live there myself for a long, long time.
This book is well worth owning and reading and re-reading in whole or in part.
Connecting with one's humanity is redemptive and humbling as well as a rewarding process for the one redeemed.
Enjoy, or ??? Worth the time and slight effort to stick it out. I found the ending to be very satisfying.
I remember lying on a gurney in a hospital emergency ward a few years back. I was pretty sure I was going to die. I was surrounded by a bunch of other folks in similar condition, and many of them were groaning like you couldn't believe. It was driving me nuts, and I would have told them to shut the hell up if I had the strength. When a doctor finally stopped to check me, I told the guy "nice tie." The guy immediately began pumping a few gallons of blood into me, and got me fixed up in a week. I think he appreciated that I wasn't a groaner. I guess I just don't have a depressive personality. Olive Kitteridge, the person, isn't a groaner, but generally speaking Olive Kitteridge the book, is about the groaners.
Try as I might to put the book down, something kept drawing me back to it. I'm reminded of Otto Rank's remark about men tranquilizing themselves with the trivial so they can lead normal lives, but hardly anyone in this novel does this. There's only one fairly normal guy: he's a minor character who maintains a positive attitude, while building a boat inside his garage...a boat that looks like it will probably be too big to pull out of the garage when the work is finished. All the other characters take themselves way too seriously. They need hobbies or something.
Some of the stories I just didn't "get." There's one story near the end of the book where this woman can't find a job, and she keeps burning pieces of paper in her sink while she's talking on the phone, and then she figures it's a half-hour walk to her doctor's office; and it's the middle of the night; and she loads her pocket book with lighter fluid and a sweater and paper and two cigarette lighters and leaves her house. The story ends there. Is she going to commit suicide? I guess so, but there doesn't seem to be much motivation provided earlier in the story for her to do something so drastic. It just fits with all the other suicidal stuff in the book.
One reviewer said that this is a "womans' book." Maybe that explains it? I don't think I've ever read a "womans' book" before. If they're all like this I'm pretty sure I'll never read one again.
Olive was a retired teacher, married to Henry, and the mother of one son, Christopher. As a teacher at the same middle school for years, she had the rare opportunity to know most of her neighbors through school. Olive was flawed, often depicted as angry, condescending and sharp-tongued. However, in other chapters, Olive showed many favorable characteristics, helping her former students and fellow townspeople in small but significant ways.
Through this quilt of stories, the readers – and Olive –gleaned lessons of loving and living. One of my favorite thoughts from Olive Kitteridge was at the very end: “…that love was not to be tossed away on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it.” Though Olive’s life story, I learned something about my own life and choices (good and bad) that I’ve made.
The character of Olive Kitteridge with her detestable moments in one chapter and her tender moments in another made her real and alive to me. She was a cantankerous old lady with a heart of gold. Indeed, she will go down as one of my favorite literary characters.
If you enjoyed the structure of Winesburg, Ohio or the small-town writing style of Richard Russo, then grab Olive Kitteridge. But even if you don’t, grab this book anyway. I think most readers of contemporary women’s fiction can find something to like in Olive Kitteridge (and I bet it will be Olive herself).
But don't be mistaken: There are some stories in this collection (I prefer to think of it as a collection rather than a novel because I think it works better that way) that truly shine: "Incoming Tide," "The Piano Player," and the tremendous "A Little Burst," among others.
It's a solid 3-- you could pick and choose stories and not try to form the character from the stories and still have a pleasant read.
Olive is a former middle school math teacher both feared and respected by her students. She's a large woman, grown even more so in her sixties and seventies. She has difficulty showing her emotions, keeping her son's estrangement to herself rather than sharing this grief with friends. She can also be a bit brusque and abrasive. But despite this I couldn't help liking Olive. The stories flow chronologically through Olive's later years. I found a few especially memorable:
- Pharmacy: This is the first story, and introduces Olive and Henry and is also the only story focused primarily on Henry's thoughts and feelings. The reader meets Olive first from Henry's point of view.
- Starving: An amazing story of Harmon, who is in a lifeless marriage with Bonnie and befriends another woman named Daisy. She helps him discover himself, and he takes a significant decision in hopes of happiness, but the story ends a bit unresolved.
- A Different Road: A traumatic incident disrupts Olive and Henry's peaceful lives and has a lasting impact.
- Security: Olive visits her newly-married son after a long time apart. They have difficulty relating to one another as adults and this further strains their relationship.
While each of these stories can stand on its own, this book is wonderful when read cover-to-cover, as a novel. Full of rich characters and emotional impact, it will remain with me for some time.
In fact, there is more to all of Strout’s characters than meets the eye. These New Englanders manage their lives stoically, saying little to each other of the pain that lies underneath. These stories get at the heart of relationship, what it means to live and love over many years. Beautifully written, some are painful to read, they feel so true in their description of human frailties. It is understandable why this quiet book won the Pulitzer Prize. It will stay with you for a long time. Highly recommended.
The novel is a loose collection of stories about the people of the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. The common character in the stories, even if she's mentioned as only a passing recollection, is the retired teacher Olive Kitteridge. The theme common to the stories is the human need to love and be loved, and the sometimes unexpected actions that result from those needs.
One middle age couple befriends an anorexic young woman. The older woman, Daisy, "showed him a gift she was sending Nina – a pillow crossed-stitched with the words I AM LOVED. "Don't you think that might help her, to glance at that sometimes?" she asked."
When Olive thought about someone she had loved "she had the sensation that she had been seen. And she had not even known she'd felt invisible."
Those quotes are some examples of why I liked these stories so much – ordinary people and ordinary situations, believable and familiar, but that are engaging for their insights into our own actions and thoughts.
A nonlinear, nonchronogical narrative structure must be built with extra care so as not to confuse the reader. Strout reveals this as the greatest strength of this work: by keeping the narrative voice simple and clear, she avoids the complexity trap that has befallen so many experiemental storytellers. Jumps in time are kept to a manageable number, and are cleverly elucidated.
Of all of the different interpretations of loss and pain that are portrayed, it its Olive Kitteridge herself that, surprisingly, emerges as the most whole. The reader encounters different views of her from various perspectives as other characters give their views of her. We see her argue with her husband, son, and commit childish acts. But it is the revelation of who she is that adds depth and push to stories that otherwise would have a tendency to get sleepy. Olive is the type of character that leaves an impact far greater than her personality or actions might suggest.
The mature, embittered woman encountered early on becomes more so by the end, only the reader comes to understand Olive better by seeing different angles of who she is. Elizabeth Strout achieves the coveted feat of making us like an unlikable character , mainly by showing that Olive Kitteridge is human just like we are.
This book left me feeling unsettled. I don't like books that have phony-feeling endings that tie up all the loose ends neatly, but this book was the opposite extreme. The glimpses of Olive and her family and neighbors left me with so many unanswered questions . . . I guess that's one of the points, that life is like that and the people we know, we know only so much about . . .
Caustic, judgmental, and "honest" to a fault, Olive Kitteridge resembles the scary aunt that children run away from at family reunions -- the one who informs you that your legs are too fat to wear shorts and that you have Grandpa's nose. Even her body is a force of nature. Olive is unusually tall, and not in a willowy way. She slices through the small Maine town of Crosby like a sturdy ship of state, leaving battered feelings in her wake like so much hurricane flotsam.
Olive Kitteridge is a woman to be reckoned with, a fact that is not lost on her long suffering husband, Henry. He's a bespectacled, tentative man who loves his job as a pharmacist and awakens each morning with the belief that the world is a good place filled with good people. His workplace is a refuge where he can satisfy his hunger to make everyone happy. No one can make Olive happy, however, and the hairs on the back of Henry's neck tingle each evening as he drives home in anticipation of Olive's inevitable irritation with him or with Christopher, their only child.
Olive may be easy to dislike, but she's also fascinating. She delivers one-liners that are rude and yet strangely satisfying to read; they're the kind of remarks that we've all secretly wished we could say at some time. Olive: "How I hate a grown woman who says 'the little girls' room.' Is she drunk?" Further example: When Christopher leaves Olive alone with his recent (and many-times divorced) bride, Olive looks about and casually asks, "Where is your newest husband?" Her thoughts aren't something to be proud of, but we've all had them ("More gratifying, however, was the fact that . . . the story of Bill and Bunny's offspring was worse than their own.")
Olive isn't all bad, however, and the author is brilliant in her ability to elicit compassion from the reader as the complexity of Olive's personality is gradually developed. Olive's years with her son are filled with impatience and discord, but she is devastated and profoundly lonely when he chooses to move to California; "Pain, like a pinecone unfolding, seemed to blossom beneath her breastbone." She observes her future daughter-in-law gently stroke the hair of a young flower girl at Christopher's wedding, and acknowledges to herself that something is deeply wrong with her own inability to express physical affection. She is mortified when, after an evening dinner, she realizes that Christopher and Ann never informed her that she had food on her blouse, a "courtesy" extended to an aging old woman. Olive's former students (she was a junior high math teacher) remember her with respect and admiration. "Don't be scared of your hunger," she told one of them, "If you're scared of your hunger, you'll just be one more ninny like everyone else." These moments help the reader to empathize with, if not admire, Olive. In doing so, the reader expands his/her ability to realize that the complex mystery of others is never fully knowable.
This book is technically a series of short stories that are all connected in some way to Olive, but it reads more like a novel. In addition to being a character-driven tour de force, it is also a wise commentary on domestic relations, the ways of small towns, and the human condition in general. Take a trip to Crosby, Maine and spend the week with Olive. I think you'll be glad you did.
It won a Pulitzer so I feel like it should be fantastic,
Each of the other stories could have been a book in itself. Beautiful, thoughtful, resonant writing.
And Olive, of course, doesn't see herself as others see her and thus, is continually wondering why people aren't polite or kind, or why her only child wants to be as far away from her as possible.
As the stories progress through time and Olive interacts with her neighbors, deals with the after affects of Henry's stroke, and starts to communicate with her son and his family, she begins to develop a deeper understanding of herself. And, in the end, Olive begins to discover that life, indeed, may have a second act.
This book is beautifully written and should be read slowly to savour its beautiful imagry. As unpleasant as Olive can be in this book, by the end I had come to like her & root for her finding happiness.