Friday, December 19, 2014

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: A review

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Olive Kitteridge is a large woman with a loud voice and a big personality. If we were to compare Crosby, Maine to a solar system, Olive would be the sun around which all the planets orbit.

Olive is not a lovable woman. She is outspoken and opinionated but has trouble expressing her own emotions. As we progress through the thirteen short stories that comprise this portrait of her, however, we learn that she is a woman who loves passionately and deeply. It is her tragedy that she is not able to express it.

Short stories are not my favorite form of writing, but these short stories seem a particularly appropriate way to reveal Olive to us. Each story features different characters, often long-married couples, sometimes former students of the formidable Ms. Kitteridge - she taught math at the junior high school until her retirement - and sometimes just people passing through the little town, but we see Olive through their eyes. She does not necessarily feature as a character herself in all the stories, but the strongest ones do have her at their center.

While we get to know Olive through the eyes of others, we get to know Crosby through her eyes. She is not pleased with what she sees. Her world is changing and she is not happy with those changes.

Olive is married to Henry, the town pharmacist, who is an easy-going, affable kind of guy, one who is liked by everyone. Others often wonder how Henry can stand the irascible Olive. One of the characters, Jane Houlton supplies the answer to that question.

"He loves her," said Jane, with a tone of admonishment. "That's how he can stand her."
And love is at the center of these tales. The love of husbands for wives and wives for husbands, parents for children and children for parents, love between friends, and love between strangers. Love, however silent or poorly expressed, rules these lives.

One of the amazing things about Olive is that she has an intuitive understanding of people. Perhaps it comes from all those years of teaching and observing children, but she seems to have an unerring instinct for what people need, what is lacking in their lives.

She sees one of her former students sitting alone in his car and feels immediately that he is in trouble and has lost the will to live and so she goes and sits with him - uninvited - and talks him back from the brink.

She sees a young anorexic woman and this large woman is able to identify with her.

Olive finished the doughnut, wiped the sugar from her fingers, sat back, and said, "You're starving."
The girl didn't move, only said, "Uh - duh."

"I'm starving, too," Olive said. The girl looked over at her. "I am," Olive said. "Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?"

"You're not starving," Nina said with disgust.

"Sure I am. We all are."

"Wow," Nina said, quietly. "Heavy."
A perceptive woman to see that we are, indeed, all starving for something and we try to fill our emptiness in different ways, whether with doughnuts or sex or music or walks by the river.

And those are the kinds of insights that we get from Olive Kitteridge. It is a tour de force of writing by Elizabeth Strout. It's not surprising that it was the Pulitzer Prize winner for literature in 2009.


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