Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

To me these people are Amish, so to make Olive Kitteridge endearing would be no small feat. Small-town USA, particularly northeastern USA, inflicts a sort of narcoleptic apathy on me as I read about it. As if that weren’t enough of a disadvantage, the book’s stories predominantly concern the town’s more Cracker Barrel-y aged citizens; to them, I’d be a member of the younger generation that abandoned them for more exciting things. And, honestly? Abandon them I would.

Ah, the Pulitzer-Oprah combo. But don't be fooled: this book is nothing like The Road.

In real life, Elizabeth Strout was one of these emigrants who’d eventually left for New York City and is fully aware of this cultural chasm. She takes it upon herself to make Olive and the rest of Crosby, Maine’s denizens relatable to book clubs across America.

The book is a collection of stories: thirteen slices of Americana depicting the lives of people bound together by their suicidal ruminations and shared addiction to doughnuts. The town’s center of gravity (and almost in a physical sense) is of course the titular character, and whether Crosby’s citizens remember her as an intimidating math teacher or as a critical over-sized hen, Olive’s presence is felt nearly everywhere.

We wouldn’t look back on a traditional novel saying, “I liked it, but it did have some shitty chapters.” The story-collection-as-novel is so much more likely to feel uneven.

Good ones here:

“A Little Burst” — The first piece that actually got me to notice Olive, and then like her in a peculiar moment of pettiness she has at the end.

“Winter Concert” — An elderly couple with a perfect-seeming relationship is tested when a past betrayal is suddenly unearthed. What makes this story so powerful to me is how believably (yet not obnoxiously) ideal The Houltons are, with such touches as when Jane looks at her dozing husband and still recognizes the face he had as a boy.

“Ship in a Bottle” — You know a story’s good when you wouldn’t mind seeing it expanded to a full-length novel. I’d rather read about the Harwoods than the Kitteridges.

Not so good ones:

“Incoming Tide” — Shockingly banal with an “It’s a Wonderful Life” resolution to boot.

“The Piano Player” — Not terrible, but its connection to the rest of the stories is too tenuous for it to be here.

“A Different Road” — Olive suffers a bout of “explosive diarrhea” and makes her husband pull over at a hospital so she can use the restroom. Then the staff wants to examine her in case she’s life-threateningly ill. Then two gunmen in ski masks storm the hospital and take everyone hostage. The unmistakable WTF quality of this piece nearly derails the entire book.

Suicide Sounds Nice

Death turns out to be an unexpected coda throughout Olive Kitteridge. Whenever someone isn’t thinking of offing herself, it’s because she realizes she hasn’t long to live, anyway. With every new character that’s introduced, I’m anticipating the off-handed mention that she’d like to hang herself from the marina dock but not before these chrysanthemums get planted, because when I saw Marlene Bonney at the grocery store she said it’s only going to get colder and she’s usually right about these things, so yup, better do ’em now while it’s nice.

Does Podunk, Maine produce such an unbearable existence, or are we to assume that this nearly unanimous ennui is transferable to the rest of us? Say it with me: AMERICANA! The “This Is Us” insinuation of Olive Kitteridge is further validated by the Pulitzer sticker on the jacket. If you don’t feel the resonance of this book, it’s merely an average reading experience.

So what’s Olive like? An insufferable shrew who manages to endear herself as the book goes on? Not exactly. Mostly, she’s impulsive and salty. And yes, she does undergo dramatic development in response to family tragedy, but she’s never what I’d call loathsome, and the softening of her character gets underway too quickly to have much impact. Not that Olive isn’t interesting, but I’m not seeing what the major book reviews are seeing, which is a dynamic literary personage to remain emblazoned upon my psyche from here to my deathbed, that I should recall, “Ah, that Olive Kitteridge! Such humanity– in her human humanness that is us all!”

I never truly disliked this book until the cute, self-congratulatory “A Conversation with Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge” in the back matter:

ES: “You are the most fascinating [character] to me. You are ferocious and complicated and kindly and sometimes cruel. In essence, you are a little bit of each of us.”

[Interviewer]: “That is gorgeously said, Ms. Strout.”

(Jesus Christ. Okay, Later…)

Olive: “You know what else is amazing? This book… I thought it was pretty damn good.”  

Well, I’m glad you did, creation of the author who says whatever the author wants.

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2 thoughts on “Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

  1. I really did like Olive Kitteridge, but I completely agree that some of the stories didn’t really fit in or weren’t really that compelling. I liked the book overall because I enjoyed that Strout made me like Olive, even though she was such an unlikeable character. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but I specifically remember this scene where Olive drips ice cream on her shirt and no one tells her. That scene, to me, just amplifies the idea that these little tiny things in life really make you who you are and have a huge impact on how you feel, who you become, your relationships with others. I liked that aspect of Olive’s story.

    I laughed when I read your thoughts on the “conversation” at the end of the book. How completely ridiculous that was! I remember finishing the book, reflecting, turning the page, skimming the “conversation,” thinking, “what in the hell is this..?”

  2. Friends of mine who enjoyed this book also appreciated the small things you mentioned. Because, true, the “ice cream” moments are what we remember when sizing ourselves up at the end of the day, and they can likewise make the stories memorable. I felt like this book missed me by a mile, but at the same time I see how it could almost violently resonate with other readers.

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