Book Review: Olive Kitteridge
Posted March 15, 2014on:
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2008, 286 pp.
Olive Kitteridge is not a novel in the traditional sense, nor is it simply a collection of short stories. It’s more like a series of highlights or video clips assembled in chronological order but not necessarily united by a single story arc. The single unifying presence is Olive Kitteridge, a woman large in physical presence and charismatic influence on whatever room she enters. She is not charming or adored–she is often feared, loathed, or avoided. Sometimes she is the center of the story–it is her story–but often she is only a minor character on the set, someone who simply helps advance the plot in some simple way.
Each of the thirteen stories is self-contained and stands on its own, beautifully written and intricate with details of the characters’ internal lives. Several of the stories feature her husband Henry or her son Christopher. Most of the stories, though, center on various people in the Maine town where they live. Strout picks up on the intimate back stories of the woman who plays piano in the bar, the cashier in the grocery store, the man who moved away and returned for a visit. Olive herself is a teacher, and Henry the town pharmacist.
For most of the stories, the character’s live and development is contained in the one short chapter focused on them. But Olive evolves throughout the book, as do our impressions of her. Christopher grows up, Henry ages–but only Olive matures and develops in ways that are deeper and richer as the various stories unfold through her and around her. I was surprised and touched by how my own perceptions of Olive evolved throughout the course of the book. I was cheering for her at the end.
In fact, only a handful of the congregation goes to church regularly anymore. This saddens Henry, and worries him. They have been through two ministers in the last five years, neither one bringing much inspiration to the pulpit. The current fellow, a man with a beard, and who doesn’t wear a robe, Henry suspects won’t last long. He is young with a growing family, and will have to move on. What worries Henry about the paucity of the congregation is that perhaps others have felt what he increasingly tries to deny–that this weekly gathering provides no real sense of comfort. When they bow their heads or sing a hymn, there is no sense anymore–for Henry–that God’s presence is blessing them. (15)
I am looking forward to reading more from Elizabeth Strout. I struggled a bit to get into Olive Kitteridge, because I wanted to dive into a traditional novel instead of the separate stories. However, her beautiful prose and intricate characters kept me going. It was well worth it.