Olive Kitteridge

Monday, August 10, 2009

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout won 2009's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I can see, in some respects, how this novel in 13 "short stories" was chosen for this award, but I can also understand why some readers may not be able to appreciate the novel for all that it is.

I have seen this advertised as a collection of short stories, but I really didn't see it that way. Yes, the book is broken up into 13 chapters, stories, parts, whatever you want to call it... and in reality, all of these could, indeed, be classified as a short story all on their own; they each told a short tale that relayed a message about the characters but also about humanity in general. Some were about Olive Kitteridge and her family while other stories focused solely on other people in the community. Nonetheless, Olive makes an appearance in each story, though only briefly in some of them. On the other hand, the stories are told in a continuous fashion so it still moves along like a novel. While one story might be about a different family in the community, the events and characters are all intermingled so that, for instance, in Olive's brief appearance in one story she may refer back in time to something that happened to her in an earlier short story.

Did that get a little confusing? Basically, Olive Kitteridge is a retired 7th grade math teacher. She was always the "mean" teacher and even with adults she comes across as cold and, often, uncaring. But as you read the stories you get more into Olive's mind and learn how she reacts to situations and what her thoughts are. Elizabeth Strout's writing was beautiful and I wonder how she was able to empathize the way she did (or was able to elicit that emotion from me) with the later-in-life characters. The stories all told about life, anguish, and heartache mainly experienced during the later stages in life. We read about marriages and how love holds strong despite ups and downs; we read about the heartache when an adult child seems to no longer care about his parents; we read about the temptations and desires for people other than their spouses. This book was remiscent, for me, of some Maeve Binchy novels because the novel introduces such a host of characters and they're often mentioned in passing during chapters focused on other characters. And through it all I felt like I experienced and understood what life in my 70's might feel like. This and the messages portrayed is what I found fascinating about the book. I think that the readers in the characters' age ranges may be able to relate well to this book.

However, I can also see where some younger readers may not be able to relate. The book had a sort of morose feel to it, as it told about life's struggles. But there were some stories that made me giggle in parts; for example, in A Different Road when Olive has to go to the bathroom so bad during a car trip she has to stop at the emergency room because it's the only building in the area... or in A Little Burst when Olive's son gets married; actually that was the story when I started to really feel sorry for Olive and started to emphathize more with what she was going through. Some readers may also have a difficult time garnering the intended message from some of the stories... some seemed sort of profound and I didn't really "get". I think it really depends on what your own life experiences are.

All that being said, I think this book was good because the author did a beautiful job at exploring some intense human emotions that so many can relate to. Not my favorite book but definitely gives you some things to think about.


Elena said...

I usually avoid award winners, but the Pulitzer usually has good ones, and I've had so many recommend this book to me I might have to read it! Great review :) found it through Book Blogs

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

I think the format of this one just sounds wonderful and different. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it, even if you didn't love it.

passionatebooklover said...

Great review, sounds like a wonderful book!

Jenny said...

Elena -- I'm the opposite, I feel like I should be reading all the award winners, lol.

Melissa -- it really is an interesting format!

passionatebooklover -- Thanks!

Kristen said...

I think you're correct about a sort of morose feel to the book. Her first book was that way too. Wonder if her others all are as well?

Jenny said...

Kristen, I don't remember a whole lot about her first book but I do remember that I liked it! I haven't really heard much about the other book.

mike draper said...

I like your review. Certainly gives a good idea of why a person should read the book.

Jenny said...

Thanks, Mike!

Robin Spano said...

Interesting observations. I haven't read the book yet, but I heard Elizabeth Strout speak at an Alice Munro tribute, and I think Alice Munro was her biggest writing influence since she was a kid. So it makes sense that she'd (a) be sympathetic to how older people would think and (b) be morose about the human condition.

Great review! Thanks.

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