Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

36. Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout
fiction, 2008
hardcover, 267 pages
library book
finished, 7/29/09

Some might call this a book of short stories, I think it is more a book with chapters on interrelated people in an area in Maine. A character you meet in one chapter shows up in another. I read only one at a time, and then put my bookmark back in the book, so I could absorb that person's life before going on to another's story. Olive Kitteridge is there in most of them, maybe even all. Sometimes it is just a mention, while other chapters are completely devoted to her.

One person left me a comment saying she began the book but dropped it because it felt 'a bit dark' to her. Well, dark it is, sometimes. Well, truth be told, most of the time. The people really are lonely, lonesome, alone. But most of them have a spark of something that lights up their lives even the tiniest bit. And those moments are appreciated.

Oh, I had a wonderful weekend. We went to Henry's folks and dug potatoes at night. Henry put the headlights on from the car and we dug potatoes. Finding the potatoes in that cold soil - like an Easter egg hunt!

When a man was dying, he'd ask his wife to bring him 'the basket of trips' - a basket which held pamphlets collected over the years of places they planned to go. They would look through them, 'talking about the trips we'd take when he got well.' They both knew he was dying, but this little event brought him joy and hope in those last days of life.

There are kindnesses that really can make someone's day, and the author knows this. I've felt my whole life that people who deal with the public; whether receptionists, grocery store clerks, salespeople in clothing stores, post office employees - each one of them can, and very often does, make another person's life a little better, one's burden a little lighter by simply being kind. It means everything to a young mother, often alone with a little baby all day with no one else to talk to, for the check out clerk to ooh and aah about the baby, and talk about blackberrying. To a widower, the teller in the bank may be the only person he sees for days. A couple examples from Olive Kitteridge are a piano player in a restaurant who would play a man's favorite song as he walked out after a meal, and a waitress in Dunkin' Donuts who remembers a customer likes extra milk in her coffee.

So, yes, there are sad people, but despite their circumstances, I didn't feel sorry for them; at least most of them. To me, this makes Olive Kitteridge a remarkable book. There are hurting people, people who cannot connect, people with mental instabilities. And I cared for them. Even when they didn't always behave well, I could find something in them to rejoice about. The book spans many years and sometimes goes back and forth in time, but it is always understandable. The characters are incredibly real; people you know, or people you walk past without knowing. In a small area, you 'know' things about people even if you don't know them personally. And there are lots of things you don't know, and can't know. Elizabeth Strout tells us some of these things about the people in her book, and we come away from it better people for knowing. We learn to care about these folks, and hopefully this will remain with us, and help us to care for those among us in our lives.

I marvelled over the language, the use of words, the way the author put those words together. Whether describing a person or the natural world, we can see just what the author wants us to see.

The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor. The midafternoon sun hit them in a wide wash of light where they grew on the hill, almost down to the water. From the kitchen window, Olive could see them: yellow, white, pink, bright red. She had planted them at different depths and they had a lovely unevenness to them. When a breeze bent them slightly, it seemed like an underwater field of something magical, all those colors floating out there.

And how the whole world can change with just a few words. A couple in their mid-seventies, who seem very happy, and all that we hope to be in those years run into acquaintances at a concert.

Mrs. Lydia said to Bob, "You've retired now, since we last saw you? Wasn't it funny, meeting you in the Miami airport the way we did?"...
"When was this?" Jane said. "Miami?"

I felt a knot in my stomach.

I hope you will read this if you haven't yet. It is a rare and exquisite book, and I loved it. Please also read Maggie's review. I'm sure there are others out there but this is the only one I've read (and I waited to do so until I finished the book, and finished writing my own). Please let me know if you have reviewed it, with a link, and I'll post it.


  1. Oh, Nan...this is such a wonderful review! I loved Olive Kitteridge. The book is truly a gem and it will, without a doubt, be one of my favorites this year.

  2. (Phooey, where did my comment go? I hope this is not leading to double-posting!)

    I just finished this book over the weekend and totally agree with your assessment. It is dark, but probably no darker than real life (if we knew everyone's secrets). And it balances that with plenty of life's brilliant moments, as well. I was very impressed.

  3. I'm so happy you liked it.
    It's one of my favourites for this year. Exquisitely human, I thought.

  4. Olive Kitteridge is far and away my favorite read of the year so far (and not just because I recognize Mainers in the book but because I recognize humans in it). Elizabeth Strout has so much compassion for her characters, for humanity. The tenderness with which she reveals the details that reveal her characters is exquisite.

    I'm so glad you loved it too.

  5. I liked the book too. And I really ended up liking Olive herself.

  6. This was such a lovely review! I have Olive Kitteridge on my to-be-read pile and plan on reading it soon.

  7. me too ... I loved it and lingered longer than usual ... like J.G said, "real life" it certainly is

    O.K. was an astonishing woman ... love her, hate her, fear her, comfort her ... whatever, you couldn't ignore her

    I'm passing the book on now to a friend. I think she'll love it too. We talk books all the time she's working on my teeth

    I have now on audio book from the library one of her other books ... Abide with Me

  8. I was so very pleased to read your comments.

    JoAnn and raidergirl, I just added the links to your great reviews.

    JG, it didn't appear twice, and even if it did, because I moderate, I would just delete one. :<) I like that 'if we knew everyone's secrets' - that is just so true. We never, ever know what goes on in someone's life or head.

    Pamela, it is just such a good book, and it stays with the reader after it is over.

    June, I like that about the 'tenderness.' So very true. In another writer's hands, there could have been more sarcasm and we would have cared less about the characters.

    Paperback Reader, thanks so much for coming by and leaving a comment. I'll be interested to see what you think.

  9. Nan, thanks for the great review! I have this on my to read list! Sounds like a good one!

  10. I started reading your post and realized that I want to read this book RIGHT NOW! I quit reading so that I could experience this book too.

    Elizabeth Berg, author, whom I know ever so slightly, said she LOVED this book!

    Okay, off to the book store with my gift card..........

  11. Wonderful review!!! I plan to read this one of these days. Perhaps a book club selection? Do you think it would generate enough discussion?

  12. Sherri, Laura, and Les, I'll sure be interested in what you think. Les, absolutely it could 'generate discussion.' It would be fun to pay attention to where Olive is in each chapter; talk about the various characters and their lives; are they real? do you know people like them? oneself perhaps? Did they find it depressing or uplifting or both, like life itself?

  13. I've had this one on my radar for a while - glad to know you enjoyed it ... that's a good sign that I will as well ;)

  14. I'll be interested in what you think, Heather.

  15. Wow, Nan! You knocked this review out of the ball park!

    I cannot wait to do this for reading round table. I think all will love it!

    Oh, and I'm honored! What a nice thing to see my name attached to your insightful post! :D

  16. Nan, thanks for the link to your review. I really enjoyed it! I must have missed this during the summer when I wasn't blog reading as regularly... or I was skimming way too quickly. You and I expressed some of the same things, pointing to how well Elizabeth Strout has brought the reader through the stories, as if taking us by hand down a windy path, so that we can get certain important lessons or feelings from the chapters. Thanks for including my review among the others. This may have been my favorite read of the summer (perhaps because it was the last of the summer reading, and perhaps because I love short stories and loved what she did with them.)

  17. Maggie, I don't suppose you'll be coming back here after so long, but when I opened this blog entry today to read Nan's comment, I saw that I hadn't responded to yours. Thanks for your great words! And the honor is all mine, my dear. :<)

    Nan, I love short stories too, and particularly a book of related short stories. I love learning about someone in one chapter and then hearing about that same person from another point of view in another chapter. I'm going to begin reading a short story a week (she said optimistically) and participating in John's short story Monday:

    I think it's a great way to get myself to read one each week, and to connect with other fans of short stories.

    I was just reminded of a nonfiction book I read that is much as I described above - American Bloomsbury.


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