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Book Review: Olive Kitteridge

This is a guest post from Emily January Petersen.  Emily is a great friend of mine and reads widely and deeply.  Today she is taking a look at our latest Pulitzer winner–and Emily isn’t sure that she agrees.  Fantastic stuff from a brilliant person.  Enjoy the Olive Kitteridge synopsis and discussion.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge Synopsis

Emily January Petersen

I keep a list of the books I read.  Each time I finish one, I type it onto the list, alphabetically by author, then I put a simple “Yes” or “No” next to it.  These two words represent whether or not I would recommend the book to a friend.  Most books get a “Yes,” a few get “Yes!” and even fewer get “Yes!!!”  I enjoy reading, therefore most of the books I read get a nod of approval because if I did not like them much to begin with, say, in the first chapter or so, I stop reading.

Today, I put a “No” next to a book.  What, you ask?  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  “But that’s this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner,” you say.  I say it shouldn’t have won.  You are probably also wondering how I managed to finish this book if I did not like it, as I told you that I quit after a first chapter if I am not impressed.  I do this because I do not want to waste my precious reading time on books that do not interest me.  However, I stuck with Olive Kitteridge because it had won our country’s most exclusive prize in literature.  I wanted to be impressed.  I wanted to read what the panel of jurors had read.  I wanted to know why it had won.  Well, after finishing all 270 pages of it, I honestly can’t tell you why.

I can tell you that the novel is written much more like a collection of short stories, except Olive Kitteridge, the main character, appears in each story.  She is a middle-aged math teacher who first appears as a nagging wife to her pharmacist husband.  She is overweight, gruff, and an atheist who hates the president, who remains unnamed but is described as a lying cowboy who was once addicted to cocaine.  Olive is staunch in her beliefs and unmoving in her convictions.  Henry Kitteridge, the henpecked husband, once tells her that he has never heard her apologize.  This describes her well.

The vignettes featuring Olive take us from her middle years to her elderly ones.  Residents of the small town in Maine, where Olive and her husband live, make appearances.  Most of them are former students of Olive’s, somehow touched by a few words she spoke to them in class or by her current actions toward them.  In one instance, I found myself moved by Olive’s compassion despite my first impression of her as nasty.  She becomes acquainted with a young girl suffering from anorexia, and Olive, in her blunt way, tells the girl she is “starving to death” and then they have a good cry together.

Other stories present dramatic action, such as the trip and fall of a former student into the ocean during high tide.  Just as Olive commands another former student to save the drowning girl, the chapter ends.  I am still wondering whether or not the young woman lived or if the young man who saved her was awarded some sort of heroic medal.  I also wonder if those two ended up married, as there was some obvious sexual tension before this life threatening turn of events.

Olive is fallible, a trait that makes her loveable despite her rudeness.  She is not thin or pretty, but instead visits Dunkin’ Donuts regularly.  She uses sugar as a way to self-medicate, which is much needed after her only son marries a skinny, successful, bossy woman and takes him away to California.  As part of her revenge, Olive takes the new bride’s blue bra, one loafer, and writes on a sweater with a permanent marker before leaving the house.  Olive muses over her tricks, thinking that the new daughter-in-law won’t be able to blame anybody for a missing bra, one missing shoe, and a mysteriously ruined sweater.  Olive chuckles to herself over the way she will puzzle this woman.

Olive’s elderly years are lonely, and they give us the novel’s point on the last page.  “What young people didn’t know . . . They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as need as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again.  No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it” (270).  Reading such a conclusion at first disarmed my revulsion for this novel.  I suddenly felt as if I had gotten the point and the reason it had won the Pulitzer.

However, I then found myself comparing Strout’s obvious point to that of Wallace Stegner’s in Angle of Repose, another Pulitzer Prize winner.  Stegner’s main point centers around forgiveness and its essentiality in marriage, among other important human truths, but he makes this point delicately and tacitly.  Stegner did not throw in a philosophical paragraph at the end of his masterpiece in order to assuage his readers.  He illustrated his point through the story and its many intricacies.  In fact, a sloppy reader would not catch some of what Stegner meant by Repose.  Strout does not show this skill, but instead threw her character’s epiphany in my face.

There is no set plot in Olive Kitteridge, but we do get a sense of who she is through her experiences and her impact on others.  This form is reminiscent of the modernist period, in which the life of the mind and stream of consciousness writing were all the rage.  Instead of getting inside the heads of the characters as our only window into the world of the novel, we get the action surrounding them and their occasional thoughts in reaction to their situations.  The prose is also less dense, making Strout’s form of stream of consciousness much more accessible than that of William Faulkner or Virginia Woof.

Strout’s skill as a writer is not in question, for her descriptions are impeccable and the prose is flawlessly seamed.  However, the story leaves much to be desired as does the way it is constructed.  With each new chapter, confusion besets the reader as they grapple to understand who, what, where, when, and how.  Each section is like starting a new book because of the unfamiliar characters and situations that are constantly introduced.  Because of this, the story falls flat.  Because of the author’s obvious explanation of her point, the point falls flat.  All in all, I put a “No” next to this book because I will not be recommending it to anybody.

Please chip in to the discussion? If you’ve got a better Olive Kitteridge synopsis, I’m all ears!

Update from Josh: This Olive Kitteridge Review brings in traffic every single day and continues to spark conversation, despite being two years old. If you’re a blogger looking for reliable traffic, these are the kind of posts that do it!

Emily January Petersen has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University and is currently working on her Master’s degree in English at Weber State University, where she teaches English 1010. She has previously worked as an editor and has been published in Sunstone.

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  • Susan June 29, 2009, 5:57 am

    Hello. I listened to this book as an mp3 download from my public library.

    I tend to hate short stories, so the format of the book almost put me off at first. Why hate short stories? Well, if I like the story, I regret that it’s over just as I’m getting pulled in. If I don’t like the story, then I don’t like the story. So a book of short stories is usually a no-win for me, and I avoid such books as a rule.

    But the selection in downloadable books is not so hot, and the promise of a novel in stories was at least a little appealing.

    So I was not too put out when I had to find my bearings for each new section. The reappearance of Olive in each was gratifying.

    As for content, the message that resonated for me is that “people are complicated.” Olive seemed to be kinder to her students than to her family. Then again, she was very dedicated to her husband once his abilities tanked. Her abilities for insight and compassion were all over the map, sometimes strong and other times absent.

    I couldn’t help thinking, when she was presented as a difficult and critical wife and mother, how tough a life hers was. She had a teaching job as well as a full time homemaking gig. Her husband ran his pharmacy and came home to be taken care of while he mooned over his young assistant. No wonder she balked at some of his expectations when it came to entertaining and social expectations.

    Overall, I found it thought provoking to be presented with very different perspectives on one person. These resonated in my head afterwords as I pondered how to reconcile the different images. So I was happy to have listened to the book.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 29, 2009, 6:49 am

      Hi Susan. I still haven’t read it, but you have gotten me interested again.

  • Susan June 29, 2009, 7:26 am

    Josh, I think you’d find it a worthwhile read. Olive’s relationship with her son is particularly opaque and puzzling, so much so that I still don’t know what to think about it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 29, 2009, 8:03 am

      all right, I’m in. I’m leery of prizewinners in general, but that’s not the author’s fault. I’ll grab one at the library as soon as I can and report.

  • Lucy VP July 25, 2010, 5:22 pm

    I have to agree with you. I was surprised to see it won a pulitzer also. Although I did like the ending so I guess I must have found Olive a likeable character in some way, to be happy for her belated transformation (ish).

  • Rachelle August 17, 2010, 7:52 am

    Dear Ms. Petersen,
    If you were to read this novel again at some point later in your life, I think it might strike you in a much different way, as it did me, a woman of 62 years. I feel the book was brilliant, compelling. The novel’s structure and narrative style gave me a view of Olive’s life (as her life was woven into those of others) that helped me to understand how difficult it is to completely know and understand others, how we make assumptions based on such an incomplete view. I made notes often as I read, marveling at her writing, which drew me into its intimate embrace; I was sure that I would want to review passages later and savor them. I fully understand that a reader’s response depends upon the context of his or her life. Because of that, the lives of the characters meshed with my own and I felt it deeply. I have a suggestion about writing reviews: I don’t know if I would have found it helpful to have read such a detailed summary. I think it is better to hint about the events and characters and let your readers draw their own conclusions. Your blog is a great idea and encourages exchange among readers. I appreciate that. Good luck in your future endeavors. Oh, before I go, I’d like to note that I just read Susan’s comment: “Her (Olive’s) abilities for insight and compassion were all over the map, sometimes strong and other times absent.” Yes, how true, Susan. And isn’t that true for all of us? Hopefully we get closer to understanding life, making peace with it, before we die. Strout’s protrayal of the universality of this predicament makes OLIVE KITTERIDEGE a timeless, prize-worthy novel.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 17, 2010, 7:58 am

      Rachelle, what a wonderful comment. I have been dying for someone not from my generation (I’m 32) to jump in and give another perspective. I read certain books every couple of years to see how they have changed as I have changed my perceptions. I’ll gladly revisit Olive after reading your thoughtful point of view. Thanks!

    • Barbara November 23, 2010, 7:44 am

      I agree with everything you say, Rachelle. I am 58 and have found so much in this book that resonates as truthful, much that I recognise (and I am English, living in Germany, so our lives are quite different). It is not a comfortable book; it is uncompromising but fascinating. I have tried hard to imagine how I would have felt reading this as a twenty-something – I think I might have found it depressing but still very readable. I think people should give this book a chance; it has so much in it that provokes thought across the generations.

    • Maurice June 2, 2011, 9:23 am

      I have taught literature courses at university level for years, though I’m now retired, and I agree in general with Ms. Petersen’s response to this book. I am also almost 65, so I don’t think that this is necessarily a book that will be better received by a mature audience. Of course Strout can write in a manner that keeps readers’ attention. But the ultimate effect of this novel on me was quite negative.
      I did not find Olive compelling or wise or even particularly kind. Her help with the anorexic girl, for example, is accidental and seems to lean on her background as a high school teacher (people in that difficult profession are often trained in counseling and told to watch their students for problems, as if they didn’t have enough to do). It seems to me that Olive is an exceptionally self-involved person, and her interactions with most of the characters are cruel. She does not, as her husband (who seems quite kind and whose “crush” on his young assistant remains chaste and quite understandable, considering his wife’s generally negative demeanor) points out, ever apologize. She also has an exceptionally destructive relationship with her only son, and her sabotage of the son’s wife’s clothing–aimed at “teaching” the woman that “nobody knows everything” borders on psychosis. Olive’s “directness” and her idea that she is superior to everyone else do not make her charming. Her need to control others is not a virtue, in my view. The town’s residents are often shown as damaged and disoriented, living their lives as accidents that simply “happen” to them. This may, indeed, be the Great Truth of Human Experience Strout wishes to illuminate, but I didn’t feel she did it with much heart or style. And I really don’t need to be reminded of how hapless most humans are.
      There is something else going on in this discussion that puzzles me. Readers seem to assume that the Pulitzer Prize is conferred on its recipients by some kind of deity or by a group of Great Writers. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the prize is conferred by a group of contemporary American writers on another contemporary American writer, most all of whom have been involved in the Creative Writing industry that has developed in American universities over the past 40+ years. Outsiders–those who don’t get CW degrees or teach in CW programs and are not citizens of the United States–are rarely rewarded. For example, the Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, has written some amazing fiction (and non-fiction, for that matter) and yet she has never been given a Pulitzer, though she does teach Creative Writing courses on occasion. Nor was Robertson Davies, author of the remarkable “Deptford Trilolgy,” ever honored with that award (and Canadians are North Americans, after all, and so should qualify for the award). Cormac McCarthy, an American whose “Border Trilogy” is, for me, the equal of Dante’s Comedia in American fiction, has only been given the National Book Award as far as I am aware. But he did not learn his craft in a university Creative Writing program and does not teach in such programs.
      “Olive Kitteridge” is “readable,” as they say–the prose flows easily and you can more or less put a time line together (as opposed to a plot or themes). But, for me, the experience of reading it has not been rewarding. And, at nearly 65, I don’t like to waste what little time I have.

      • Kathryn August 14, 2011, 3:04 pm

        I just finished reading Olive Kitteridge today and I would also give it a “NO” — I didn’t like Olive, but she doesn’t have to be likable to be significant. Irrelevant, because I found she was neither. Further, I didn’t like anyone in the novel: they seem lonely, weak, sad, broken… was there honestly one story that was optimistic? And often they were filled with icky “drama” like the sister who admits to sleeping with her sister’s husband after he has died, or the old couple that seem happy until the wife realizes that the 72 year old husband secretly visited a woman (4 years prior) that he once had an affair with. Even the ending chapter, where Olive “finds happiness” she also likens herself and the man she wouldn’t have chosen earlier in life to pieces of swiss cheese full of holes (i.e. life is lonely and painful and you take what good you can get… or you don’t).

        When I finished the book, my first thought was that just because Strout was a skillful writer does not mean that she isn’t capable of writing absolute crap.

    • Noeleen September 6, 2011, 11:32 am

      I have to give this book a “No” also. I am almost 62 and did not like Olive. Her lack of understanding, petty meaness emotional distance left me cold. If I were her son I would have gone as far away as I could and look for a woman totally different from the one that raised me. Too bad he didn’t meet someone kinder. I don’t think he had a chance with his upbringing. The minor characters that entered the story was a mixed bag of vignettes, I kept hoping that one of them would help instill a change in Olive, that she would realize her short comings. I would not recomend this book to anyone and still wonder why it won the Pulitzer Prize?

  • Rachelle August 17, 2010, 9:07 am

    Thanks, Josh. I guess I was writing to both you and Elizabeth. Good luck with your blog. It was fun to contribute and I was pleased to receive your prompt and genuinely friendly response.

  • Ava August 17, 2010, 4:16 pm

    The book Olive Kitteridege isn’t a “novel like a collection of short stories,” as you say. It *is* a collection of short stories and should be read as such. Each piece is a stand-alone, independent of the others. Narrative arcs in literature can be small subtle things and there are several ways to read the book. Also, I’m not sure when people decided they needed to like the characters they’re reading about, but I think that’s bunk. I may not like a person like Olive if I met her in a parking lot or [shudder] if she’d been my math teacher, but she certainly is well-written. If you’ve missed the searing beauty of the author’s prose, look again closer is my suggestion.

  • Michal November 29, 2010, 7:43 am

    I (52 years old) am with Rachelle: I have just finished reading this book and I found it compelling and insightful. I wish there were more novels that so insightfuly explored how (always) difficult and (sometimes) rewarding it is to make a commitment to a relationship over decades, and how these relationships go through several completely different phases – relationships to spouses of course, but also to children and friends.

  • Glen December 13, 2010, 12:43 pm

    Pultizer, I dunno either. I’ve only read the first two stories and doubt I will have the tenacity to finish. Finely written, yes, but achingly predictable: “Pharmacy” – tragedies: cats et al. And then the redemption borne of the confluence of the two (or three) rare events in the next story made me want to fling the banal thing across the room. Compare the second story, to say “The Falls” by George Saunders for one (No Pulitzer though).

    • Josh Hanagarne December 14, 2010, 11:33 am

      Good luck, Glen. I’m a big George Saunders fan.

  • Teresa February 3, 2011, 8:24 pm

    I (almost 60) must agree with Emily, and I’m once more baffled by the awards committees these days and the books they heap prasie upon. I also found the prose laudable and the diction tone perfect, but I found little to like in the storytelling or lack of it. Sometimes I thought Stout didn’t know how to end a story so she thought it would be clever just to leave everyone hanging. I too agree that none of us really know our friends and neighbors, but for Olive Kitteridge because of her abrasive personality this would be doublely true. It’s true as a teacher in a small community you know more about homes and parents than you would really like to know, but it seems as if Olive really didn’t get to know her students; what she knew of them she learned from others. At the end of novel all I felt was saddness that Stout had not really championed marriage, and her novel was more dirt thrown on the corpse of an institution she believes dead. Most of her stories were about unhappy married people.

  • ruth garvin May 17, 2011, 8:29 pm

    You were spot on.
    What an overblown book to win prize. Ridiculous.

  • Mommythelawyer June 6, 2011, 8:05 am

    After reading your review, quarter way through, now I think I will not regret abandoning the book. I am listening to it (audio format) and and hour has passed since I started and I am yet to like the bok. Will stop now.

  • Rebecca June 24, 2011, 7:56 am

    I loved Olive. I am 61. I grew up with an angry mother and for me it was cathartic to have Olive just blurt out awful things and let me watch from a safe vantage point to see what would happen. I saw Olive progress from a younger, belligerent wife and mother (with real love and compassion in her) to an older wife and mother who was starting to be forced to change. I loved when her son called her a possible paranoid schizphrenic (was she?) and he refused to be afraid of her anymore. Olive didn’t get it but I did. It helped me see how hard it was for my mother to deal with herself and why she didn’t understand people’s reactions to her. And the writing was wonderful.

  • TucsonLady June 24, 2011, 9:13 am

    I agree with your review–it is a novel which is a string of short stories. Since I was reading this book for my Book Club, I was required to complete this novel. Pulitzer Prize, p-l-e-a-s-e!!! Olive is a frustrated, angry, mean-spirited woman who has no redeeming qualities, but beyond that, she is tiresome and uninteresting. Get over it!

  • elise June 29, 2011, 2:34 pm

    I agree with people who wrote these posts. Before Olive Kitterage, I read “The Last Days of Dogtown”. Maybe that book was too good so Olive Kitterage was then by contrast even worse. Anyway I am absolutely mystified that it won the Pulitzer. While I got lost in the author’s talented writing style and rich descriptions, there was no point, other than maybe the author’s own worry about growing old? There is more to life than loneliness no matter how bad it gets, and the fact that this was such an intense theme showed the own author’s point of view a little too much. I am a geriatric social worker and the way she portrayed older people was actually a little demeaning. There is not just loneliness in old age. I tried, but did not see a point to these loosely connected lives. Everyone: read “Last Days of Dogtown” instead.

  • Susan Synnott July 13, 2011, 3:12 am

    I haven’t enjoyed a novel as much as ‘Olive Kitteridge’ for years. The contradictions and complexities of the characters was one of its great strengths. I felt that the thing that defined Olive was her father’s suicide – it had her looking over her shoulder, managing a lot of that depression within herself, and keeping her eye on whether her son had inherited that gene. The second chapter in this book, where Kevin comes back to the town, and Olive sits in his car as Kevin’s rifle lies on the back. In a sense Kevin explains Olive’s character when he thinks of John Berryman’s poetry: “Save us from shotguns and fathers’ suicides…Mercy!..do not pull the trigger or all my life I’ll suffer you’re anger.”

  • Judith September 7, 2011, 8:35 am

    Phew! I have been reading this book as it is this month’s choice in my book club. I have read the first few stories but have been struggling to make myself read any more. In fact it has felt a bit like having home work and so I have been doing displacement activities like making cookies! We have lots of chocolate chip cookies at the moment! I felt that I should like it and, indeed, the prose is beautifully written but like other readers I find Olive an unpleasant character, and ‘No’ to answer another blogger’s comment, you don’t have to like the characters you read about but neither is she described well enough for me to understand or identify with her.

  • really? September 14, 2011, 1:46 pm

    are you all serious? maybe you aren’t familiar with good literature then, because this book is beautifully written with a compelling plot. even if it isn’t “the book” for you, at least acknowledge that is it extremely well done.

    • Marymac October 5, 2011, 11:10 pm

      This book is a treasure! I too marked passages throughout the book that I will return to for the pleasure of the thought and the writing of it. This is a book that at a younger age (62 now) I would probably have struggled to finish. Which of these characters haven’t I passed in my years of living? And the author nails each situation as if she had lived every moment of it.

  • JoDee October 29, 2011, 1:18 pm

    Just finished reading this novel and found it very depressing. I wanted to stop after each chapter, but continued ,hoping to find something about Olive that I liked. I’m 65, have an only son, and have taught school for 43 years……..this book is not the ticket!

  • Ruth May 9, 2012, 2:34 pm

    I’m intrigued by so many divergent comments. I enjoyed Olive Kitteridge though I, too, was surprised that it was considered Pulitzer material. Nevertheless the writing is seamless and skilled. It isn’t a page turner but true to life. Characters aren’t meant to be likable so much as memorable
    For me Strout provided motivation to drag out a book of linked short stories that have been in the drawer since the early 90s. I have an idea for a revision that I’m sure won’t make it Pulitzer material but might at least interest a publisher.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 9, 2012, 3:14 pm

      It has definitely been an interesting discussion. Lots of opinions. Good stuff.

  • Heather May 17, 2012, 12:20 am

    Thank the Lord I was not the only one. I agree. I agree. I agree!

  • Kathe September 13, 2012, 3:10 pm

    I’m not surprised that so many of the commenters didn’t like the book. It is unrelenting in its depiction of loneliness, betrayal, unhappy marriages and relationships, pettiness, and fear. That said, I found it deeply moving. I would absolutely categorize the book as a set of short stories that are linked by Olive Kitteridge. I had no trouble understanding that I was reading short stories, not a novel. I think one of the reasons I was so touched by it is that I’m an older woman. I seriously doubt that I would have read this book as a young woman and if I had, I probably would have identified only with the younger characters. Initially, I found Olive unlikeable, but I came to understand that she was very lost and that her lack of introspection was a huge factor in her loneliness. She honestly had no clue why her son didn’t want to have much to do with her (although he must have known she loved him or he probably wouldn’t have stayed in touch with her at all). I don’t think it’s accidental that Olive is consistently described as being a large woman — big, imposing, overbearing. But her bluntness and lack of compromise seemed to me to be defenses against the knowledge of how utterly alone so many people are. If you, who are reading this, came from a happy family and are enjoying a good marriage and healthy relationships, I think you may be in the minority. I believe most people’s lives are marked by suffering in one form or another and as we grow older, it becomes more and more difficult to ignore the basic fact of existence: that we’re going to die and we will die alone. That we humans can get up every day and go about our business with that fact hanging over our heads is utterly remarkable. Perhaps Olive’s most salient characteristic is that she has no illusions about life, that she knows she will eventually be alone, that marriages that endure end in the death of one of the partners. Perhaps the last story in the book is a bit contrived in that maybe it’s not that plausible that Olive would have one last chance at connection. But I was glad for her. At the end she discovers the importance of E.M. Forster’s famous phrase: “only connect.”

  • Barbara September 14, 2012, 12:11 am

    Good points, Kathe – I loved the book, as I said earlier, and totally agree with what you say.