Saturday, August 30, 2008

Review: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout


I remember reading and liking Strout's first novel, Amy and Isabelle, around the time that it came out. But Strout's new book, Olive Kitteridge: Fiction, made a much bigger impact on me. Olive Kitteridge is not a novel, but a book of thirteen short stories, linked by the character of Olive Kitteridge, a cranky middle school math teacher in a small town in Maine. Some of the stories are from Olive's point of view, others are about other characters in the town who have some relationship, large or small, with Olive, and the stories span a time period from Olive's youth to her old age.

I really admire Strout's writing--it's economical, yet gorgeous, and she has real insight into the human condition. She uses small details to create scenes of great emotional power. Her characters are complicated, and though they live small-town lives, they deal with all the big issues--suicide, addiction, loss, bad marriages, miscommunication--really, the gamut of human issues.

Strout paints us a nuanced picture of Olive, and of the community she lives in, by telling us stories that center not just on Olive, but on the people around Olive; her husband, son, and neighbors. We see Olive's misanthropic, difficult, angry side, and we also see how, as a strong woman and teacher, she has strengthened those around her. Olive is a great character because we both love and hate her; we identify with her and yet abhor many of her actions. And what's brilliant about this book is that the small, seemingly disparate portions add up to a vibrant whole--for example, a particular story may only have a tiny bit about Olive in it, but that tiny incident will inform some action of Olive's later in the book.

The book is definitely dark. It deals with a foiled suicide attempt, anorexia, adultery, prostitution, illness and death. Small town Maine, as depicted here, seems to be a world that knows the dark side, though it is not without hope. But the sadness feels emotionally honest, and I know many such stories really exist in small towns, as elsewhere. And even though the book was sad, it was compelling, and I really enjoyed every page, and highly recommend it. I'll definitely put Strout's earlier novel, Abide With Me, on my TBR list.

13 comments:

Carrie K. said...

Abide With Me was one of my favorite reads last year. I'm looking forward to Olive Kitteridge; thanks for your review.

Joy said...

OH, OH, OH! I have this on my iPod to listen to. I'm so happy to read that you really enjoyed this. Thanks!

And, thanks Carrie K. for sharing about Abide With Me. I didn't read that one either.

Gentle Reader said...

carrie--I am going to run right out and get Abide With Me--if not at the library, maybe there are Labor Day Sales :)

joy--I hope it makes a good listening experience!

Bybee said...

I liked Amy and Isabelle. This sounds very interesting.

verbivore said...

I wanted to read Amy & Isabelle and somehow never got a bookmooch copy, but this sounds absolutely great. I will try and find one right away - i love linked stories, especially if they end up making something rather like a novel.

Gentle Reader said...

bybee--I really enjoyed it!

verbivore--it does make something rather like a novel, so it was very satisfying to me!

litlove said...

Wow - this sounds wonderful! I will certainly be looking out for it now, and other books by the same author. Great review!

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--it was some of the best writing I've read this summer, with some of the most frustrating yet interesting characters.

Leah said...

Yours is the 2nd good review I have read of this book and I am definately going to look out for it. I love short stories, especially those that have a linking theme. Thanks for the recommendation.

Gentle Reader said...

leah--thanks. I like short stories with a linking theme, too. I hope you like the book!

Anna said...

I'm always looking for good short stories. Thanks for the review!

--Diary of an Eccentric

Iliana said...

I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed this one. I liked Amy & Isabelle quite a lot so I'm definitely curious to read this one.

Gentle Reader said...

anna--I'm always looking for good short stories, too. I really enjoyed this book :)

iliana--I'm also putting Abide with Me on my list. I so enjoyed her writing style, I'm anxious to read more :)