1,019 of 1,043 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2008
I am not normally a fan of short stories. While I appreciate the technical abilities of the short story writer, I find "shortness" troublesome. Generally, the longer a book is, the more appealing. Consequently, I was initially leery of the descriptions of Elizabeth Strout's newest novel, "Olive Kitteridge," which calls itself "a novel in stories."
All of the stories in this book occur in the town of Crosby, Maine. At the center of many of the book's stories is the person, Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher. In the stories that don't feature Olive, her name may appear only once in an effort to tie it to the larger work. That the stories center on one town, and a limited number of that town's inhabitants, who also reappear from time to time, I did not encounter my usual problems with short stories. This book gently reminded me of what is best about short-stories: a brief slice of a life, a snapshot that tells a complete-enough story. In having all these stories bound together, one feels a bit like the proverbial "fly on the wall"; a fly who may spend most of, but certainly not all, it's time in one particularly interesting home (Olive's).
I especially enjoyed reading about Olive in her post-retirement years, the ways in which she deals with other people and herself. In many ways, I can identify with Olive, having doled out bits of malice in angering situations; or having been soft and tender-hearted during others. Like Olive, I too have been both fool and sage.
I really enjoyed "Olive Kitteridge." Olive is a complex person vacillating between viciousness and compassion. In the way all people are puzzles, so is Olive. In one story she does something deplorable, in another she potentially saves a life. People can never be fully known, merely experienced in bits and pieces, from which a general portrait may be formed. This book is a testament to the mystery that is humanity: why we do what we do, what motivates us, how even self-knowledge is warped and lacking, and how ultimately, all people are fundamentally incapable of seeing themselves as a whole. Olive also embodies hope: one is never too old for surprises.
Many of the "stories" in "Olive Kitteridge" are deeply profound and thought provoking. I will not be at all surprised when this book does very well. It's structure is unusual; it's message is penetrating and accessible and universal. Olive causes me to think of the many complex, and at times unlikeable, people in my own life in a different way. Strout is a master of revealing the many onion-like layers of interpersonal relationships. Halfway through "Olive Kitteridge" I went out and bought two of her other books. I am also tentatively considering reading some other short-story collections by authors whose novels I've loved.
Like any great book, "Olive Kitteridge" slightly shifts the way in which I look at the world and other people, and perhaps most importantly, myself.
308 of 333 people found the following review helpful
These stories of small town life in Maine linked through one woman, Olive Kitteridge are so emotionally honest and resonated so deeply, I felt literally fragile after I finished. I bought the book knowing nothing about it besides the fact the stories were linked, based merely on how much I had loved her previous novel, 'Abide With Me'. I liked this even more. I adored the character of Olive so much, and could almost see her in front of me when she opened her mouth to speak. Strout is an exceptionally writer who mines human emotion for literary gold. Highly, highly recommended.
393 of 430 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2008
Having read all three Elizabeth Strout novels, I'd place Olive Kitteridge behind the other two. Do not get me wrong, Strout is still an exceptional writer, weaving you into each chapter and describing things beautifully.
You know that feeling when you're just starting a book? Getting acquainted with the characters? Trying to remember their names, their personalities, what they look like and the surroundings are just coming into focus? This entire book has that feeling because essentially each chapter is a different story. With the exception of Olive, you never hear about a character beyond one chapter. It's as if twenty books were collected, a chapter ripped from each, and placed in this single book. You're introduced, learn the character and are drawn to their story and then it's onto somebody else, never to return and find any conclusions.
I just did not like the separation between story lines. True, this is meant to be a small town collaboration, with Olive as the center character, but sometimes it was a stretch. One particular chapter only mentions Olive once, in a fragment of a sentence that just mentions Olive was the character's teacher in school. Sometimes it just didn't seem the connection was enough to warrant that particular character's inclusion of the story of Olive and ended up being more of a distraction than an addition.
There are also a lot of overlapping details and re-telling of facts. Each person knows Olive, so you hear numerous times her description and certain facts in her life, concerning her marriage or her son. At the end you are very connected to Olive and it is a wonderful character and story. I just have difficulty with the way it is told, through the many unconnected characters you never re-visit with and the stark division in each chapter with no real flow or explanation in the jumps.
I do love Elizabeth Strout and her novels are very heart-felt and beautifully written. I am still a fan and will continue to read her future works. I just place this at the bottom of the three read so far. I'm glad I read it, but also glad that it was a library check-out and I didn't spend the $25 because it's not a book I think I'd re-read often.
63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2008
OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout is a "novel" of short stories, some of which have appeared in magazines like the New Yorker and Ms. The stories tell of small-town Maine residents who all struggle with relationships and, really, the quest to feel known. Each story can and could stand alone, but the book doesn't read like a collection of separate works, but rather as a description of people of a common place (Maisy Mills, Maine), who all know a common character (Olive Kitteridge) and who all struggle with the fundamental problem of the author's theme, trying not to feel alone, completely alone.
Many of the stories do deal with Olive or her family directly, and we come to know her throughout the book, through her husband's experience of "crushing" on an employee in the first story to her own experiences as she ages and her life changes by the final story. But in other stories, she is a minor character, perhaps mentioned briefly as the main character's former math teacher in high school or as someone another character does not like.
And this aspect become fundamental and almost a secondary theme of the book. As Olive herself remembers her own serious flirtation with another man ("... she had the sensation that she had been seen. And she had not even known she'd felt invisible" [p. 213].), and progresses through later stages of life, we come to see that she is not perfectly lovable -- or perhaps not lovable at all, up close. But she still needs intimacy. "Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed" (p. 211). She is an emotional anti-hero, and through Strout's tender writing, we do love her.
One of my favorite stories was "Starving" which deals nimbly with all of these subjects, and doesn't feature Olive primarily. Strout's writing is straight-forward, but thoughtful and tender. These people became real to me. I miss them now that I have finished the book.
101 of 113 people found the following review helpful
As a fan of Elizabeth Strout's writing, I posit that "Olive Kitteridge" may well be her best novel yet. It's actually a collection of connected stories (through the eponymous Olive) about life in a small New England town.
Strout draws each character, and each relationship with a keen and economic eye to detail; in just a short story we learn so much. She deftly describes the intricacies of life weaving the momentous with the mundane, just like reality does. And also like reality, people are multi-faceted. At first Olive may strike the reader as a crabby old woman, which is one facet of her character, but as the stories progress, we learn more and more about this complex and ultimately interesting person.
This is simply a wonderful book. Stout's prose is so perfectly apt and so fluidly succinct, that aspiring writers will be alternately envious and awestruck. This is the kind of writing that we avid readers wait for.
55 of 60 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2008
I closed this book with a feeling of "oh my gosh, what a story!" Presented in a series of short stories within the ongoing story of a woman's later years in life, this was one of the most unique books I have read in a long time. The main character is somone we have all been at one time or another whether we want to admit it or not. We have all felt put-upon, self-rightous, lonely, hateful, superior, and tired. I also think, at one time or another, we have all felt that all the other people around us are slow-witted jerks who are only trying to make our lives miserable. This is Olive Kitteridge. She, like all of us, is ego-centric and wonders why all these things keep happening to HER. At times you want to despise her while at the same time completely understanding what she is thinking. The author does a wonderful job at describing the insecurities, obsessions, insanities and sadnesses of small town denizens and their interconnected lives.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2009
I love this book. It is a deeply emotional book, covering some tough subjects. I swear she knows my mother. She described her to a "T". I think I connected to this book because the relationship between Olive and her son resonated with me. It also gave me some insight. Maybe Olive (and my mother) did the best they could. This is a great read for anyone interested in real people, real situations, real feelings. If you are a human, you will find something in here to be moved by. The author brought me to tears several times. I borrowed this book from the library, but I will be purchasing it to read again, and even again. What a beautiful book, Elizabeth Strout.
60 of 67 people found the following review helpful
I do love Elizabeth Strout's insights into the working of the human mind. The filter between writer and reader barely registers, the thoughts are so intricately expressed and recognizable as true. That's the best part of this book. (That, and the scene in which the title character, Olive, takes revenge on her new daughter-in-law!)
I had read in reviews of Ms. Strout's Abide with Me that readers were disappointed in the lack of action or apparent reason to keep reading that book. I don't agree with that assessment, but I do think this book goes overboard in the other direction. Something dramatic happens in everyone's story in this book, and it's always something awful.
I became weary of the accidents, deaths, murders, near-drownings and suicides, eating disorders, infidelities and divorces, cruelties spoken and thought, the relentless dying of hope and possibility.
The structure of the book is also problematic if you start by thinking that you're reading a novel. It's a series of individual stories linked loosely through Olive. I quickly came to care about individual characters only to have them crushed, or never to hear of them again after a chapter ended. And, as with most fiction, I didn't feel that many of the characters were believable, maybe only the title character. Even Olive steps out of character in the last scene of the book, which I imagine is supposed to be uplifting, but I found ridiculous.
I'm in the midst of my life, and maybe this is what's to come. If so, at least it will be just my story I'm living and I won't be weighted down with the knowledge of everyone else's pain. It's too overwhelming. The characters could have used a little of the faith of their Abide With Me counterparts to temper the despair.
53 of 60 people found the following review helpful
Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge" is the Pulitzer Prize Winner Fiction for 2009. Because I have so greatly adored the previous few winners I had to pick this up as soon as the winner was announced. It did not disappoint!
This book has depth! Be prepared to immerse yourself in the world created in this novel. It's not a quick read, it takes focus to get through it. I even took notes in the back few blank pages of the book.
The book is centered around Olive Kitteridge, yet most of the chapters and stories are not directly about her. Each story is about someone that was affected by her, or involved with her somehow. There are a few sections that are directly about Olive herself as well.
The characters are referenced in other chapters other than their own, so I opted to keep a chart of characters with a little blip about them and their relationships with other characters, as a reference. This came in handy! I would recommend keeping a character chart so that you can full experience the depth of the novel.
The stories are so real, its small town America! All of the people in the town know each other, they know each others secrets and have crossed each others paths on many occasions. Their lives are intertwined whether they like it or not.
The mothers and fathers desire so greatly to have their children in their arms forever. They want the best for their families and can't understand their children's need to run away all the time. They resign to the fact that all children hate their parents, but have a hard time understanding why.
Spouses find themselves having their needs fulfilled by people they never expected to want or need. They wonder how their relationships have gotten to the places that they are today. They wonder who they have become and why they should need another person to complete them.
The book deals with issues such as anorexia, divorce, aging, disaster, marriage, family and love.
The relationships are complex, and the writing is introspective. This is by far the best book I have read in 2009.
33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
What an exceptional novel! Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen short stories with one character, Olive Kitteridge, who straddles each of them. And in the end, she learns (I paraphrase), "Lumpy, aged and wrinkled bodies were as needy as young, firm ones; love is not to be tossed away carelessly on a platter with others that got passed around again."
Olive is a large (and sometimes, larger-than-life) woman who lives in Crosby, Maine, with her amiable husband Henry and her conflicted son, Chris. Through these stories, we will see these three characters, and others who are peripheral to their lives, change and evolve with many unexpected surprises.
We meet many characters who live inside the homes we pass every day: a former student who contemplates suicide, an anorexic young woman who is literally starving while many in the town are figuratively starving, an aging married woman who learns that small moments are not always gifts, a spurned fiancee who chooses love on any terms. As these Crosby residents grapple with problems large and small, and choose or reject love, Olive slowly gains insights into the human condition.
I loved this book. I loved its beautiful writing, solid core, hidden truths, and ruthless honesty. I will miss Olive Kitteridge, and her small human dramas. I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and not agreeing with the book's conclusion: "It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet."