The first of our Book Club Reviews:
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a novel that cuts directly to the heart of what it is to be human. You quickly realize as you're reading that this novel will be taught in schools for generations, in other words, it will be a classic and a staple of our literary education. Why? Not just because of the beautiful, concise and flawless prose. Or because of the unique structure of the novel - the book consists of a series of short stories that all in some way involve the title character, Olive Kitteridge. Its the human element and the heart in the stories that make it a classic. Its the honesty of what love and life are really like while still finding beauty in every character, no matter how flawed. Strout has a deeply empathetic and sensitive eye that translates into characters that are hard to forget.
Olive Kitteridge is a retired school teacher. She is blunt and direct while having a big heart. She struggles with her temper and pride, but is willing to reach out to those in need without a thought. Olive is a character that pops off the pages and perhaps that while she is a suitable driving force for this novel. In a series of short stories with sometimes no connection at all other than Olive's presence (sometimes consisting of only two sentences mentioning Olive) you learn the entire range of the human experience in Crosby, Maine. You learn about love, lost and pain. And through it all you see Olive grow and evolve as a character, sometimes through her point of view and other times through other character's eyes. What this novel structure does is give you a more multi-layered view of Olive as a character, and hell, you like her as much as you cringe at her sometimes. She makes plenty of mistakes and sometimes doesn't see herself very clearly at all, but other times she surprises you.
I don't know how to explain this novel other than to say that its a journey through the human experience, its sad, its funny, its touching and its heartbreaking. Can I say anything else to convince you to read it? Because I command everyone to go out and read it right now! Hey, it didn't win the Pulitzer for no reason!
I found the book, Olive Kitteridge, to be a great read, but not necessarily an enjoyable one. The author, Elizabeth Strout, is an amazing author. The book’s format as a collection of short stories was a brilliant way to do a character study on one person. Instead of a story that reads from the beginning to end, you get to see what everyone else in the community thinks of Olive. I have to admit, this was confusing to me at first. I went into this book thinking that it was a regular novel, with one main story line and one set of characters. I kept thinking that some of these characters would reappear, and while some do, most do not. I liked this, as the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, is a little abrasive and can be overbearing to everything else about the novel. It offered me a break from her point of view and gave me a breather to see another perspective of her. I really enjoyed meeting other people in the community of Crosby, and getting to see a snapshot of their lives, while getting to see Olive in passing. However, it was realistic in a way that made it maybe just a little too real for me. People fought without resolution, people died of cancer, bad things happened to good people and characters didn’t end up better for it. Some of the stories made me feel like I was looking in on a private moment, like I shouldn’t have been privy to it, and yet, now that I’m there I have to watch the train wreck. And then there are so many stories of these older married couples and their disconnection with each other as they age. They live in the same house, do the same things together out of routine, but there’s no passion or spontaneity. The novel has such realistic portrayal of emotion that it feels like this must be what marriage becomes for couples, which as a newlywed, made it hard to read. However, the novel is so well written that you can’t help but want to read more, even when your instincts are telling you to look away.
I thought one of the most interesting parts of this book was the theme of love misunderstood. The one that stood out by far was the relationship between Olive and her son, Christopher. In Olive’s eyes, she’s been doing her best to love her son. She and her husband build him a house, they support him in his podiatry business, and are happy for him when he marries this woman after only knowing her for 6 weeks. However, in his eyes, you see a mother who was overbearing and yelled all the time. He felt smothered and pressured to be somebody that he wasn’t. How could she not know that she was smothering him? How is it that two people can have such a different view of the last 30 years? Was Christopher right that she denied any fault in herself, and that her “extreme capriciousness of moods” made him who he was? Or was Olive right that his childhood was fine, and that the therapist was putting words into his mouth to blame someone else for the way his life turned out? You’ll have to read and decide for yourself!