Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge

by Jess

Let’s not bandy words about: I love this book.

It’s comprised of thirteen linked stories (or call it a novel if it makes you feel better) that center around, or in some way involve, our darling of a title character, Olive Kitteridge.  Strout crafts such a wonderfully imagined character in Olive; I despised her, pitied her, and loved her by turns.  It’s interesting that Strout chose to name the book after Olive because, while she’s at least mentioned in every story, though she’s central in most, the other tales focus on different townspeople of Crosby, Maine, creating almost more of a geographically-centered frame than a personal one.  But Olive is Strout’s anchor, and she’s an excellent one.  Scenes keep coming to my mind, days after I’ve laid down the book, to make me giggle, scenes of her sneaking through her newly married son’s closet and defacing her new daughter-in-law’s clothes, or continually trying to make herself feel better by listening to other people’s woes, or facing with dismay the tofu-dogs at the home of her son and his second wife.

There’s so much real life in these stories.  Strout chronicles all the rough spots in a life, like falling out of love with a spouse, beginning an affair, living with a spouse who’s been permanently disabled by a heart attack, living alone after a spouse has passed away, conflicts or losing touch with grown children, divorce, an eating disorder, loneliness, starting over with someone new, mental illness.  Sounds depressing, doesn’t it?  And it certainly can be, but then again, so can life.  And these lives hit so close to home because of how well they are written and how clearly imagined.  I saw my life playing out before my eyes over and over.  Strout leaves us with hope in the end, though, and there are always bright spots in the darkness of these people’s lives.

Beyond that, Strout is such a gifted writer.  Her prose is strong and beautiful, and it lends so much to the reading and enjoyment of the stories.  My next task is to re-read the book (yeah, I’ll just add it to the list) and pay more attention to the nuance of her language, now that I know what’s going to happen in the end, so I don’t have to read like mad to find out.  I miss so much beauty when I’m caught up by my youthful enthusiasm.

Strout has a couple other works under her belt, but this was the first time I’d had the pleasure of reading her gracious work.  I may add her other books, Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me, to my still-growing to-be-read list (although they sound a little too much like chick books), but they’ll have to run hard to catch up with Olive Kitteridge.

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