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Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout

So, my review of Olive, Again will be coming up next week-ish, but I first wanted to do a re-read of the first book, Oliver Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

If you’re just trying to get caught up for the sequel, note that you don’t actually need to have read this first book (Olive Kitteridge) to enjoy the second one (Olive, Again). You can also check out my summary of Olive Kitteridge or watch the fantastic HBO mini-series adaptation of this book if you want to get caught up that way as well. However, I’d recommend just reading the book in this instance, even though it’s not strictly necessary. It’s only 230 pages, it’s not a difficult read and it won a Pulitzer, come on.

Plot Summary

For the Detailed (Chapter-by-Chapter) Plot Summary, click here.

Strout’s Puliter Prize-winning novel tells a series of interrelated narratives that involve, sometimes more directly and other times only peripherally, Olive Kitteridge, a woman living in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is an “unlikeable” woman. She’s prickly, judgmental and unaccommodating. Olive teaches 7th-grade mathematics and Olive’s husband, Henry, is a pharmacist. They have a son, Christopher, who grows up to be a podiatrist.

(This is a bit of an aside, but Olive is perfectly cast as Frances McDormand in the HBO series. One of my favorite ever award show jokes is from the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards when John Mulaney describes Frances McDormand thusly: “Frances McDormand, you are no bullshit. You are great. I bet a fun way to commit suicide would be to cut in front of her in line, and then go, ‘Hey, lady: Relax.'”)

The book follows the Kitteridges over a course of decades, and in doing so presents a series of empathetic and honest stories about the people of Crosby and the large and small dramas, heartbreaks and joys in their lives.

See Olive Kitteridge on Amazon.

Book Review

Olive Kitteridge is a book about unassuming people in an unassuming town. It consists of a series of stories told with a restrained, simple elegance, great empathy but also an unflinching honesty.

The first time I read this book was a long time ago, and to be frank, it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. But I was also fairly young then, with pretty limited life experience, and I don’t think I approached it with sufficient thoughtfulness. I wanted to re-read it partially to get caught up for the follow-up, but also because I was left wondering if I’d get more out of it with some age, maturity and a slightly different mindset.

I definitely ended up appreciating the book more a closer second read, especially when it comes to more literary aspects like symbolism and trying to understand what Strout was really trying to say in these stories. There’s a lot of subtext in Olive Kitteridge and a lot that’s left unsaid. It is a powerful book, but in much quieter ways than your average novel.

Olive Kitteridge is an intensely interior novel and it focuses on the inner thoughts in these characters heads, in terms of what drives them or brings them joy or grief. The relationship between Olive and her son Christopher though is perhaps the most compelling. The book explores Olive’s history and how it plays into Christopher’s upbringing and how that evolves as Christopher grows into an adult.

Note that if you’re looking for a female protagonist version of A Man Called Ove, then this is not it. It’s a very different type of book that tries to understand Olive’s unhappiness and the barriers that she’s constructed for herself. I think this book is less heartwarming than people expect it to be, but I think its realism and that psychology behind this book is much more interesting and instructive.

Read it or Skip it?

Olive Kitteridge is well worth a read. The HBO adaptation is quite good, but the book really is better. You could easily enjoy both. While Strout’s follow-up, Olive, Again, doesn’t really require you to first read Olive Kitteridge, this book is good enough that I would strongly recommend reading it first.

It is, however, a pretty nuanced and interior sort of book. If you’re looking for something highly entertaining or something that doesn’t require you to think at all, then this is probably the wrong choice. This is also not a upbeat, warm-hearted tale, despite is bright yellow cover.

I think this book is perfect for anyone who is feeling contemplative about the everyday aspects of life or someone looking for a book that is literary without being pretentious or inaccessible. It is a perfect quiet afternoon sort of novel, perfect with a cup of tea and your pet on your lap.

See Olive Kitteridge on Amazon.


Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)

The detailed (Chapter-by-Chapter) summary for Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout has been moved here.

See Olive Kitteridge on Amazon.

Read an Excerpt