Olive Kitteridge is Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of thirteen integrated short stories about the people of Crosby, Maine, a seemingly simple town on the New England coast. The people in Crosby trade news and gossip, but the real stories lie buried deep in the complicated and often painful family relationships that only surface behind their closed doors.
The stories span twenty-five years and focus on the town’s most complicated character, Olive Kitteridge, whose harsh and critical personality is both widely disliked and misunderstood. Not surprisingly, Olive’s husband, Henry, the town’s pharmacist, and their son, Christopher bear the brunt of her brutal temperament.
Olive speaks her mind. She apologizes to no one and alienates many. But something happens over time: the reader discovers that, while Olive has no patience for simps and ninnies, she cares very much about the emotionally vulnerable, and intervenes at crucial times, using a keen instinct. If only she could treat Henry and Christopher this way. Olive’s everyday interactions with her family are so unpleasant they cause deep and lasting damage. As years pass and lives change, however, Strout offers a better look at Olive’s marriage. The author shows glimpses of hope, renewed connections and a true understanding of a very complicated woman.
Olive Kitteridge is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Strout takes a simple Maine town and adds layers and layers of themes, including depression, love, family, marriage, infidelity, growing old and forgiveness. Her characters show that goodness exists right next to all the flaws and faults of human interaction. One of my favorite things about Olive is how she works out her frustrations in the garden. The hearty yet fragile beauty of flowers is everywhere in these stories, an excellent metaphor. In addition to flowers, Strout includes the subtle yet prominent influence of nature and the sea in her characters’ lives. Sub-themes of religion and politics add further understanding of her characters.
While all of the thirteen stories are terrific, my favorites are “Pharmacy” in which Strout shows Henry’s lovable and caring personality, “Incoming Tide”, a story of critical human connection and “River”, a hopeful look to the future.
Olive Kitteridge is the type of book you can read more than once. This was my second read and I enjoyed as much as the first, picking up on wonderful details about the characters and town.
This book has made it to my All-Time Top Ten List!
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