Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: Olive Kitteridge

Summary: At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse. As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires. -- Random House

When I selected OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout as our book club pick for September, I was hoping that it would be a book that we'd all enjoy. I wanted our group to read some "literature" this month, and OLIVE KITTERIDGE did win the Pulitzer Prize for 2009. Ideal pick, right? I thought so; although in the back of my mind, I was a little worried that the book might not appeal to everyone. Often times when a book is so critically acclaimed, it doesn't resonate with the average reader. I definitely don't think that is the case with this book -- I can't imagine not loving (or at least appreciating) it.

I absolutely adored this book! It lived up to all of the hype (and there was sure a lot of hype.) OLIVE KITTERIDGE could quite possibly be the best book I've read so far this year. I can not rave enough about this book, and I will be recommending it to everyone I know. So if you haven't read it yet -- go get it now! I can actually say that I am still in awe of this book a few days after I've finished it. What Elizabeth Strout managed to accomplish in OLIVE KITTERIDGE is pure genius. I'm honestly more than a little intimidated to even be writing about it.

As many of you know, I am not really a big fan of short stories. It's not that I don't like some of the compilations that I've read, it's just that I'm a little scared of them. So in the back of my mind, I was a little worried that I wouldn't like (or even get) OLIVE KITTERIDGE. That was so not the case -- I loved each and every word in this book! OLIVE KITTERIDGE is made up of 13 short stories that are all beautifully linked together. The one major recurring character is, of course, Olive Kitteridge. What I found so unlikely about this book is that I loved each and every short story. I can't even pick out my favorites -- they were all so good for different reasons.

Olive is one of the most well developed and real characters that I've ever come across in a book. In fact, I can't get her out of my mind. She was so complex and very unlikable at times -- she actually reminded me of a female Archie Bunker. However, I loved Olive! She could be negative and nasty; and yet, she had so many conflicting feelings about her life and the people in it. On one hand, she was at pretty obnoxious and caustic; and on the other hand, she was tender with her students and most definitely loved her family. I could talk about Olive and her actions for hours! Her personality is so much fun to analyze!

There were many other wonderful characters in this book too besides Olive. In fact, almost all of the characters were interesting and extremely well-developed. So many of the people in these stories were tragic and yet so honest. Many of the stories in this novel showed how difficult people's lives were and how they struggled with just trying to survive. In some ways, this book just broke my heart; and in other ways, it really affirmed the wonder of life!

I have read some other books by Elizabeth Strout so I definitely appreciated her writing. But I have to say that I'm just blown away by how Ms. Strout wove the characters and themes throughout all of the stories. This novel is just so incredibly thought-provoking and multi-dimensional. Some of the major themes in this book include love, marriage, death/loss, suicide, and depression. I could go on and on... In addition to the major themes, I also loved how there were relatively minor ideas that were woven into the stories such as the beauty of flowers and the comfort of donuts. If you'd like to learn a little more about the novel, there is a very interesting interview with Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge in the back of the book.

Not to pat myself on the back, but I think OLIVE KITTERIDGE is the perfect discussion book! There is a reader's guide which has 20 questions and is guaranteed to make you think. In fact, I can't get this book out of my mind; and after I read the discussion questions, I starting thinking about an entirely new set of topics. I truly believe that each short story is worthy of an evening's discussion because the characters and their actions are so interesting. I rarely say this, but OLIVE KITTERIDGE is a book that I want to read again and again. I think it's one of those novels that will mean different things to you at different times in your life.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

15 comments:

Beth Kephart said...

When I started reading your review I thought, oh no oh no oh no, maybe she didn't like this book.

But you loved it! And so do I. I am awed by this book, and by the author, whom I had a chance to meet briefly. She is as wonderful in person as you would hope her to be.

Beth F said...

As you know, I'm not big on short stories either. But now that I've read your review, I know that I should just get over my mental block and get this book!

Nicole said...

Lovable characters are great but I always find that I am particularly flawed and damaged but still they are so well-drawn that you grow to love them anyway. I don't know when I will get to it, but it is definitely on my list of things to read. Your wonderful review just brought it back to the forefront of my mind.

bermudaonion said...

This book sounds great. Maybe it works because the same character is in each story so you get to know her. I'll have to look for this one!

DCMetroreader said...

I hadn't heard of this story collection, but it sounds wonderful. Thanks for the great review!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Go ahead, pat yourself on the back for recommending OLIVE KITTERIDGE to your bookgroup!

Olive (the character) has flaws, but don't we all!

Unlike you, this is the first Elizabeth Strout I had read; I have to get some of her older books, I'm sure I'll enjoy them!

Helen M said...

I LOVED this book. I have recommended this to many, many of my friends and they all fell in love with it, too.
Great choice for a book club.

Heather said...

I loved Olive Kitteridge too. And was surprised by that. I don't normally like short stories that much either, but I think having the main character of Olive in common really helped me. I liked having that link between the stories, even when it was something small and barely noticeable. Wasn't Olive great? I just loved her open, flawed-but-okay-with-that, brutally honest personality. She was a grumpy delight.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Fantastic review! I'm writing down the title and hope to encourage my book club to read along.

Special K said...

WOW! Check out my website...we must be on the same page! Would love to have you follow my blog if you like it!

softdrink said...

Despite the fact that it really is a book of short stories, it certainly doesn't read that way. So yes, Beth...go read it! :-)

Wonderful review!

Jenners said...

Now I'm even more intrigued!!!

carolsnotebook said...

Well, with that kind of endorsement, how can I not add it to my list?

S. Krishna said...

Wow, what a review! I'm so glad you enjoyed this one, you've really made me want to read it. I had the same apprehensions as you, and as a result it's been languishing on my shelf.

Dowagiac District Library said...

Our book club is doing Olive in September and I just finished it. This is a life altering book that shows a complex person's ability to maneuver through life's issues with laughs and tears. I knew an Olive in high school, my math teacher. I was scared of her but she taught me lessons I never realized until I was well into adulthood. She also taught math! I didn't wnt the stories to end in this little town in Maine. I guess they really don't...it just takes someone to tell them!