Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Review: Olive Kitteridge
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Reasons for reading: heard lots of great things about it; Pulitzer Prize-winner for the Four Month Challenge and Book Awards Challenge 4
Description: "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."
First line: "For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy."
My thoughts: This was a really good book - I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize. I was a bit concerned, as I often am, that it would be too "literary" for me to enjoy, but it's very accessible. It's just about....life. I was also concerned because it's a series of intertwined stories rather than a typical novel and I usually don't like short stories, but Olive held them all together. A few times I couldn't remember if I was supposed to know who that townsperson was, but overall they fit together very well. And it was wonderfully written - I'm not usually one for lots of descriptions, but as you can see from the first line, Strout writes them very well and they add a great deal to the book.
Olive was interesting to read about - she's a very real person, which I liked. She could have just been a rather stock character, the town's grumpy old woman, but she's not. I thought this was an excellent description of her: ". . . she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away." Overall she's known for being crotchety, and she has a very strong work ethic, appreciates beauty in the natural world (especially tulips), has a sharp wit and experiences sudden moments of great tenderness and kindness. She hid a lot of despair behind her hard shell and admits that she's not fun to live with - at one point she's addressing Henry in her mind and describes herself as a beast. Yet Henry, who is liked by everyone in town, loves her with all his heart.
The book is filled with moments of happiness (Olive calls them "small bursts," like going to the doughnut shop, as opposed to life's big bursts like weddings). I was going along happily with that until she gave herself another small burst of pleasure by stealing bits out of her new daughter-in-law's bureau to mess with her head! Although the daughter-in-law is pretty awful, so I can't blame her. That little bit of wickedness really fit Olive. But these bursts often quickly turn to sadness - children hate their parents, people kill themselves or others, they drink, they commit or are victims of horrible crimes, and, in many cases, they stray outside marriage. I did find it really sad that every couple in the book has at least some form of infidelity, even if it's never acted on physically. But a lot of the couples have been married for more decades than I've been alive, and not many actually committed adultery, so who knows?
The book ends with Olive finding some small comfort in someone else, which is pretty rare for her. I thought the book dealt well with old age - people still need love and physical affection, they can still be vital people, but they've also lived a very long time with perhaps not enough bursts of happiness, either large or small, to sustain them.