Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House
Publication date: September 30, 2008
Genres: Fiction, Literary
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Olive Kitteridge is a woman in her 60s, living in a small town in Maine, who has something to say about everyone and most of it is not good. She is also the character at the center of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Strout is coming out with a sequel, Olive, Again, this fall so I thought I should get to know Olive in the first book. This was not an easy decision because virtually everyone I know who’s read the book disliked it, including two bloggers I trust who both quit before finishing. Where would I fall in my opinion of a novel that, while not remotely controversial in topic, seems to invoke strong reactions in readers?
It didn’t take long for me to get a sense of Olive’s personality. On page 29 of the novel she snaps at her husband when he asks for reassurance about their marriage
“Oh, for God’s sake, Henry. You could make a woman sick.”
I’m startled, but hope that this initial harsh presentation of Olive is going to be explained in the upcoming pages. Instead, despite some heartache, Strout never tries to get the reader to love or even like Olive. She writes her as hard and unpleasant from start to finish. Her life is a comfortable one—she’s a teacher, married for decades to a good, kind man and with a grown son, but neither her son or her husband ever does anything right. In her mind no one ever does anything right.
This makes Olive Kitteridge exhausting reading and, in that way, Strout is a genius. She conveys, without unnecessary flourishes what being around Olive is like and, in some sense, what being Olive is like. A difficult concept, because, while I appreciate unlikable characters, there has to be something about them that holds my interest. Often it’s the reason behind the unlikability. I never found it with Olive. This meant I put the book down numerous times. I actively hated it and understood the people who had bailed on it. Why spend time reading about a person who is so miserable and inflicts that misery on everyone around her?
And yet, I didn’t quit. Not out of a perverse sense of duty or as a hate read, but because Strout excavates so much of human nature in a mere 270 pages. Olive never gets any better, so it’s not about coming to like her. At best, I came to understand her and feel some sympathy, which is surprising enough, as for most of the novel I would gladly have pushed her off a cliff. It’s possible that the other characters are what held me. Olive is not alone in her misery—it feels as if everyone (except for the affable Henry) in the town of Crosby is depressed. Suicide is the local pastime, with character after character losing a loved one or knowing someone who’s died. I can’t fully explain it, but somehow, Strout writes a curmudgeonly main character and a town beset with sadness with such care and tender respect that I followed them to the last page.