Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, and the basis for a recent miniseries starring Frances McDormand. It’s a book that falls somewhere between a novel and short stories, a trend I’m seeing a lot of lately. The stories take place in the small town of Crosby, Maine, and Olive is the common thread.

Olive is an older woman, a middle school math teacher. She’s crusty and stubborn and bossy and doesn’t really like people – all characteristics I like because I identify with them. I’m not as strong-willed as Olive, but I’d like to be. Olive is that character that people don’t necessarily like, but they often admire.

This is a book about growing older, about marriage and parenting and love. The characters are all dealing with various traumas in their lives, whether it’s a cheating spouse or a dysfunctional parent.  It’s a slow-moving, thoughtful read.

While I was reading it, I occasionally thought, it’s good, but is it Pulitzer-Prize-level good? Of course the test of a book (for me, anyway) is not always while you’re reading it, but afterwards, when you start to see the connections in your life and in others around you. That’s how this book was.

A lot of the stories in this book are about marriage and growing old together. Olive isn’t the best wife; in one story she says some terrible things to her husband, and thinks maybe she didn’t always try hard enough. This book describes a number of long-term marriages, and none of them are perfect. One of those stories was “Basket of Trips”, about a woman whose husband dies from a long-term illness, and she has a basket of brochures from all the trips they planned while he was ill, convincing themselves he’d get better.

She wants to tell Marlene how she and Henry talked about the grandchildren they would have, the happy Christmases with their nice daughter-in-law. How only a little more than a year ago they would go to Christopher’s house for dinner and the tension would be so thick you could put your hand against it, and they’d still come home and say to each other what a nice girl she was, how glad they were that Christopher had this nice wife.

Who, who, does not have their basket of trips? It isn’t right. Molly Collins said that today, standing out by the church. It isn’t right. Well. It isn’t.

At the beginning of this book, Olive is a fairly minor character, we see her mostly as a teacher and a friend.  She listens, advises and consoles. “Don’t be scared of your hunger.” she tells her students.  “If you’re scared of your hunger you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else.”

But she grows with each story, until the book is almost entirely about her. It’s a clever way to build a story. For me, the most moving part of this book was when Olive visits her son and his wife. Before that point we mostly see her from a distance, viewed through the eyes of her husband and neighbors. She is someone who cares but doesn’t express a lot of emotion. But on this visit to her son, she goes through the range of every possible emotion, and she isn’t just sympathetic, she’s tragic. Even though we’ve liked her up to this point, even though she’s really trying, we suddenly see how flawed her point of view is.

Olive Kitteridge may not be a daring or innovative book, but it’s a book about character. It’s about heart without being sweet or smarmy. It made me think about the people I’ve known who are caring to the people around them, but somehow that kindness gets derailed in their own families. Sometimes the people we love the most are the very people we can’t express that to. And sometimes, even well-meaning parents hurt their children, and those hurts last a lifetime.

So I found this book very sad to read, but also very hopeful as well. Olive Kitteridge, like the rest of us, doesn’t know what she’s doing most of the time. She’s very flawed, and very human.

Does this novel deserve the Pulitzer Prize?  I looked up the other Pulitzer fiction winners, and was surprised how many of them I’ve read. If you’re interested, here are winners going back to 2000:

  • The Goldfinch
  • The Orphan Masters’ Son
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad
  • Tinkers
  • Olive Kitteridge
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  • The Road
  • March
  • Gilead
  • The Known World
  • Middlesex
  • Empire Falls
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay
  • Interpreter of Maladies

While I’m not qualified to say what makes a book Pulitzer Prize worthy, these are some of the most innovative books written in the last fifteen years. I may not have loved all of them (The Goldfinch) but it seems to me that each is worthy of respect. And I’ve said this before: a truly great book will not work for everyone.  It shouldn’t even try.

I often find writing a review helps me answer my own questions. Was this book Pulitzer-worthy? Absolutely.

  9 comments for “Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

  1. February 21, 2015 at 11:31 am

    I’ve had this one lounging on my ereader for so long now. I don’t know why since I really like the sounds of this one. Great review!

  2. February 23, 2015 at 12:24 am

    I agree completely! There are many books that I enjoyed while reading them, but didn’t really understand their greatness until I had finished them.

  3. February 23, 2015 at 12:37 am

    Yes. I thought the book did show daring. To link the chapters with her like that. Olive also was flawed but strong. The book was powerful in subtle ways.

  4. March 4, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    >It’s about heart without being sweet or smarmy.

    I love the way you expressed this–I also really liked Olive Kitteridge, but like you I had to finish it before I fully appreciated it.

    I’ve only read three of the PP winners on the list you provided, but I definitely thought it better than March and on par with The Goldfinch, which I loved.

    This was a very thoughtful, insightful review. Helped me remember all the things I liked about the book 🙂

    • March 6, 2015 at 9:54 am

      Thanks for the comment! I always appreciate a little positive feedback. I agree about March and was mixed on The Goldfinch. I loved Oscar Wao and Goon Squad though.

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