Book review and synopsis for Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, an empathetic story about an "unlikeable" older woman..
Olive Kitteridge, 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.
Olive Kitteridge is told as a series of short stories involving (sometimes front-and-center, other times only in the periphery) Olive Kitteridge, a math teacher living in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Her husband Henry is a pharmacist, and her son Christopher begins the book as a teenager in high school.
Olive is a difficult and temperamental woman whose father died by suicide. Henry, meanwhile, is a kind and affable man. Through the course of the book, Olive Kitteridge retires and Henry has a stroke and later passes away. Christopher, meanwhile, grows up to be a podiatrist and gets married twice (once to Suzanne, who leaves him, and another time to Ann, who has two children and later a third). The stories also include some about various members of the town such as the local piano player or a young woman whose fiancee gets cold feet on their wedding day).
The book explores a lot of junctures in the course of an everyday life, and thematically it focuses on the nuances of what gives people happiness or causes someone to be kind or unkind.
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.
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.
Highly Recommended Published March 25, 2008
Page Count 227 pages
Goodreads3.84 (out of 5)
From the Publisher
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama—desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.
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 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.