Olive Kitteridge

I really loved Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. This is the first book of linked stories I’ve read, and I liked the genre more than I expected to. I’m not sure whether this is because Strout does a particularly good job with it or because I like the genre for itself, but in this case it worked beautifully. I can be uncertain about reading short story collections because it feels as though they require so much energy: you have to orient yourself to new characters and new situations each and every time. You have to do that with linked stories too, but with Olive Kitteridge there is enough to tie all the stories together that I felt a sense of coherence and wholeness that was satisfying.

Olive herself is the main thread that ties the book together, although there are others; she appears in each chapter, sometimes as the main character and sometimes only briefly, as a minor character in someone else’s story. The first chapter is from the point of view of Olive’s husband, Henry, a man other people in their town feel pity for, because Olive is known for being difficult — moody, unhappy, harsh, critical. But Henry, in spite of longings he feels for other kinds of relationships, loves her, a love that is a source of mystery for other characters and for the reader, too.

Olive lives in the town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine, which is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and secrets are hard to keep. She was a junior high math teacher — retired now — of the sort who terrified her students with her prickly teaching persona. She and Henry have one son, Christopher, whom they both love deeply, but not necessarily in a healthy way; he feels that she has smothered him and it’s no surprise when his new wife whisks him off to California, to get as far away from the in-laws as possible.

One of the things that is so wonderful about the book and about how Strout uses the linked story structure is that we get a satisfyingly complex view of the characters. In one story — one of my favorites — we see into Olive’s mind on her son’s wedding day and watch her as she struggles with having to let her son go to a woman she does not like and listen to that woman mock the dress she is proud of. In other stories, though, we see what other characters think of her — the way they dismiss or fear or marvel at her — and we can compare what it’s like to be someone with a rich and complicated interior life and to see that person from the outside, understanding some things and being bewildered by others. We can see what Olive means to a whole range of people — that she can be a figure of fun, a tragic figure, an overbearing and frightening woman one wants to run away from. And we can also see that she frequently has no idea of all those perceptions people have of her. Other people have no idea what she thinks and feels and suffers, except for glimpses now and then.

Many of the stories are sad, although in a way that is recognizable and true, not overdone. They are about longing, love, relationships gone bad, new relationships attempted, relationships that survive, remarkably; in some cases they are about violence, death, and loss — about a whole range of things that can and do happen to people living together in one place.

The place itself is another thread that holds the book together. Olive and Henry have built their house together and have also built a house for their son, and it is no surprise that they are deeply shaken when their son escapes to California. It’s no surprise that he needs to escape, either. That house was intended as an act of love, but it couldn’t help but appear to Christopher as a prison, Olive’s attempt to keep him at her side, following in her footsteps. Other characters come and go, figuring out who they are as they define themselves against the town that has shaped them. The town changes, but it remains an isolated place that’s beautiful and distinctive, and that is hard to really leave behind.

So yes, I loved this book. It’s beautifully written, emotionally complex, full of nuanced characters, and moving in the stories it tells.

18 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

18 responses to “Olive Kitteridge

  1. zhiv

    Nice! So glad you enjoyed this fine book, and you write so well about it. Your 4th paragraph is deep and complex–like the process of different perceptions of character that you describe. This is a sharp critical insight, really interesting, a very true statement about the book and its anchoring character, something that makes one appreciate Strout’s accomplishment.

    Your first linked story collection? Can’t wait for you to read Pointed Firs, which is so interesting in light of OK, but you make me think of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, her first book, and a great example of a linked collection. And I know you like MM…

    • I’m sorry. I know this is supposed to be a great collection of short stories, as it’s recognized well, but the shorts are boring. I think I might have just picked this one up at the wrong time. I’m going through this thing, where I don’t really like fiction in the third person. I’m finding the third person narrative to be irritating, corny, trite. The leaves did this, and the sun did this to the building. It’s trite. It’s exhausted. We all don’t have very much time these days, and save for the awful reason to just stop and smell the shitty roses, I really am finding that fiction has to say something; come out with it already. I’m impatient. I’ll try it again in a month.

  2. I really enjoy linked short stories. They are kind of like a novel in some ways but the fact that they are stories allows for so much more flexibility. I know Litlove liked this one and now you have too. *sigh* I’m going to have to put this on my tbr list, aren’t I? :)

  3. I generally have pretty poor luck with short story collections, BUT I’ve been curious about this one because the stories are linked. I feel like I would find something like this a lot richer and far more rewarding. So glad to hear you enjoyed it so much!

  4. I like that the reader gets to see Olive Kitteridge from different perspectives–both inside her own mind and what others think–that’s not often the case. It’s interesting to compare and contrast and you get a fuller view. I really like collections of linked stories, though I’ve not read many. Alice Munro has on (Beggar Maid I think). I need to read this as well.

  5. Hmm. I just left a comment–has it seems to have disappeared…

  6. Danielle — for some reason it went to my spam filter, but I saved it — thanks for pointing it out, so I knew to go find it!

  7. Lovely post. I also loved this book, and like you, think of Olive as the refrain that connects the pieces together. One waits for her appearance in each section as a point from which to orient oneself in the text. Always think of this book as akin to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. The whole concept of the grotesque certainly fits here.

  8. I was surprised by how much I like this book and I think you’ve put very well all the reasons why.

  9. It’s interesting to read such an upbeat review of such a downbeat book. Except for the happy ending (required perhaps by her publisher?), Strout’s view of life seems unrelentingly bleak. As I remember it, the book has about three cheerful moments, one of them being when someone doesn’t commit suicide. Anyhow, my book group appreciated the book for its literary qualities (as I did as well) and also for the accuracy with which it paints the human experience. I’m still processing the latter point.

  10. Cam

    I just picked a copy up at the book store this past weekend, to consider it for my book group. (I hate choosing books for the book group, but I usually don’t like the ones selected.) I haven’t started reading yet, but now I am even more eager to begin after reading your post. I’m finding that I like linked stories more than I used to. During NaNoWriMo, my writing project was a series of linked stories — something that I will finish some day. I found out just how difficult it is to write about the same characters from differing points of view of characters, not just different narrative points of view. It’s may seem like a fine line between writing something that is episodic and something that has linked stories, but I found as I got into it that it is quite a different animal!

  11. Cam

    And, of course, I meant “it may seem” rather than “it’s may seem”. …Rolling my eyes in annoyance at my ungrammatical typing fingers.

  12. Ooh, I really want to read this. I’ve heard such lovely and intriguing things, not least in your great review. I think the book-of-linked-stories genre can be wonderful – my favorite is Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples.

  13. I’ve read such nice reviews of this book. I like the idea of the linked stories.

  14. Zhiv — funny you should mention The Company She Keeps, because I just got a copy and am looking forward to it. I didn’t realize it was a linked collection. And Jewett is high on my list, especially since I’m going back to Maine this summer. Now I need to find Amy and Isabelle, the one Strout book I haven’t read.

    Stefanie — you most definitely are going to have to put this on your list :) I’m glad to hear you like the genre, which makes me more interested in exploring it further. I definitely like the flexibility.

    Steph — you might give this one a try. I think the way the stories work together does add a layer of richness. I like story collections too, but I’m slow to pick them up because they feel like more work.

    Danielle — good to know that about Munro. Yes, it’s the different perspectives that make this one so interesting. I think you might like this book.

    Frances — Winesburg, Ohio. Oh. I read a story or two from that book a while back and found it boring, but I think I didn’t do it justice, and I certainly didn’t read the whole thing to think about the structure much. I think I owe that book another chance.

    Lilian — thank you! I’m glad you liked it — and it’s nice to be surprised!

    Don — yes, it is definitely a downbeat book. The “happy ending” doesn’t really stand out much — what stands out more is the sadness. But still, I think it does capture human experience well, as hard as that may be. I suppose I find books that are honest about the hard parts of life invigorating in their honesty, which accounts for the upbeat review.

    Cam — how interesting to think about the genre from a writer’s perspective. I can see that it would be a challenge to capture different people’s voices and perspectives and make them truly different. A collection of linked stories would have a much greater variety of voices and registers, I would think. I think this would be a good book group book, but only if your group doesn’t mind sadness in books. Otherwise, they might protest a bit :)

    Emily — I didn’t know The Golden Apples was linked stories; in fact, I didn’t know The Golden Apples existed — thank you for telling me! I hope you like this.

    Jenclair — yes, I’d heard tons of good things too. All justified, I’d say.

  15. I’m a big fan of this genre, probably because it fits in with a cosmic view that I have that all things are somehow connected even if only tenuously. I have to say, though, that the title of the book is offputting to me–I would probably never have considered it, if not for your wonderful review.

    BTW, I have awarded you the Happy 101 award…http://janegs.blogspot.com/2010/02/happy-happy-happy.html

  16. The idea that a character’s interior life doesn’t match other people’s perceptions of them is continually fascinating. When you add in the reader who forms a third view of the character based on multiple perceptions it gets very interesting, do they know the character better because of having all the ‘evidence’, or do they sympathise with one party over the other and form views based on who they like the best? Multiple voices and opinions are always so interesting to read.

  17. I thought you would like this – and it is a beautifully written book. You write beautifully about it, too!

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