Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
2008 Random House
Finished on November 26, 2014
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
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 of Crosby, Maine, 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 own 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.
A few years ago, I tried to listen the audio version of Olive Kitteridge, but I was so bored, I quickly gave it up. I was disappointed that such a popular book had left me cold and disinterested, but I had a print edition on my shelf that I just wasn’t ready to get rid of. I really did want to give it another chance after hearing so many of my trusted friends rave about it. When I saw the preview for the HBO mini-series, starring Frances McDormand, I knew it was time to give it another try.
Elizabeth Strout’s collection of 13 stories is set in Maine, centered loosely around Olive Kitteridge. Each vignette is filled with an overwhelming sense of melancholy, as the individual characters struggle with their own challenges in life, and by the end of the fourth chapter, I was beginning to wonder if I wanted to continue reading. I’m so glad I did, as this book turned out to be one of my favorite reads of 2014!
I fell in love with Strout’s writing, re-reading passages two or three times in one sitting, the characters and setting coming alive on the page, so vivid in my mind's eye that I hope the movie lives up to my expectations.
On Morning Drives:
For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.
I didn’t care for Olive when she was first introduced in the stories, but she began to grow on me and I found myself feeling sympathetic toward her and her disappointments in life, in spite of her brash, outspoken personality. This woman has no filter!
And then as the little plane climbed higher and Olive saw spread out below them fields of bright and tender green in this morning sun, farther out the coastline, the ocean shiny and almost flat, tiny white wakes behind a few lobster boats—then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging of greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat, the new green of the fields, the broad expanse of water—seen from up here it all appeared wondrous, amazing. She remembered what hope was, and this was it. That inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life the way the boats below plowed the shiny water, the way the plane was plowing forward to a place new, and where she was needed. She had been asked to be part of her son’s life.
This is one of those books that makes me wish I were in a book club! Olive Kitteridge is a complex and unforgettable (and, at times, highly unlikeable) character, and yet I fell in love with her and this lovely book. As soon as I can watch the mini-series, I plan to re-read the book.