Thursday, September 3, 2020

Book 249: Olive Kitteridge

"As a matter of fact, there is no reason, if Dr. Sue is going to live near Olive, that Olive can't occasionally take a little of this, a little of that—just to keep the self-doubt alive. Give herself a little burst. Because Christopher doesn't need to be living with a woman who thinks she knows everything. Nobody knows everything—they shouldn't think they do." 

Dates read: July 17-20, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

It's easy to think that we really know the people in our social circle. We see them being regularly rude and snappy, we write them off as jerks. They're always kind and thoughtful when we see them, we assume that they're a good person. But it's hard, if not impossible, to actually completely know anyone else. The lovely human we know in the work place might go home and be cruel to their family. The person we see being prickly could spend hours volunteering in their community. Unless we've seen someone in every possible context, there's always an aspect of them that could be missing from who we think we know.

The thirteen short stories that make up Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge all feature the main character at least once. Sometimes she's the center of it. Sometimes she's a passing reference between two other people who live in her small Maine town. It moves roughly chronologically, beginning when Olive and her husband Henry are already older and headed toward retirement (though the first story, about Henry, is mostly a flashback), and their son Christopher is an adult. Olive negotiates her relationships with her family and her community at large as they all change, slowly but inexorably...or, often just as aggravatingly for her, don't change much at all.

Though many of the lives we encounter look at least moderately happy on the surface, there's often profound sadness lurking underneath. This is not new territory, suburban dysfunction and familial drama, and while there's nothing special plot-wise it's Strout's skill as a writer that makes this book shine. Each story is a whole unto itself but subtly builds to create a full picture of Olive, her strengths and her flaws. She can be infuriating, as when she deals with the fear from finding herself the victim of a crime by berating her husband, and she can be deeply relatable and sympathetic, like when she overhears her new daughter-in-law mocking the dress she made herself for their wedding. She is stubborn and proud and controlling and rendered with profound emotional truth. Strout never has to explicitly ascribe these qualities to Olive, because she understands the power of showing rather than telling, which she does in spare-yet-lovely prose.

As in any short story collection, some entries are stronger than others. I loved the first one, "Pharmacy" about Olive's husband's long-ago infatuation with a shy technician at his pharmacy, and two where Olive is only a background mention, "Winter Concert" and "Ship in a Bottle". Some others, like "Tulips" and "The Piano Player", failed to move me. But one of the upsides to reading short stories is that even if you don't care for a particular story, it'll be over soon! I'll be honest, I was not looking forward to reading this book, because it felt like I was in a rut of books that were interconnected vignettes without strong central plots and I wanted to read something with more structure. Happily, though, it's good enough that I found myself very much enjoying it and I'd highly recommend it even if you're skeptical of short stories!

One year ago, I was reading: Tower

Two years ago, I was reading: Sing, Unburied, Sing

Three years ago, I was reading: Boys and Girls Together

Four years ago, I was reading: Life Itself


  1. I read this book in graduate school and really liked it. Olive is a character I’ll never forget. She has such a big personality.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. She's really a fantastically-written person!