Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Synopsis (from back cover): 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 of Crosby, Maine, 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 lost the will the 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.
First line: “For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wilder road led to the pharmacy.”
Review: Another Pulitzer winner does not disappoint — I just loved this! I was a little apprehensive about Olive Kitteridge since I had not enjoyed Strout’s previous work, Amy and Isabelle, but Olive Kitteridge is not even close to the same literary status.
After reading this latest winner, I think I have finally figured out what the Pulitzer winners have in common: Our Town. Now, try to remember the very time you saw Our Town, how it made you more aware of those around you, in addition to the little lovely gifts each day brings. Remember how Our Town simply made you glad to be alive, while simultaneously ripping your heart out due to this mortal coil?
Well, this was my experience of Olive Kitteridge — and The Road and Oscar Wao, Interpreter of Maladies, March, Gilead, and just about every Pulitzer winner I have ever read (except for Gone with the Wind, maybe… kind of hard to believe Mitchell’s classic won a Pulitzer, isn’t it!).
I found myself sobbing with each of these novels, yet wiping away my tears and exclaiming, “It’s so beautiful…” Meaning LIFE is so beautiful, despite — or maybe because — our daily existence is so complex and difficult and so easy to take for granted…
Olive Kitteridge is an unique collection. Although the title character does appear in every story, she is only the focus of a few. The effect of this is that the reader really gets a sense of the entire community – and of humanity at large – and since Olive is a teacher (7th grade math), she influences many different lives.
However, we do see her personal life, too — her marriage to Henry, her difficult relationship with her only child — and we have the unique advantage of seeing Olive as others do, as well as getting to know her quite intimately, too.
I think this is another aspect of this collection that I loved so much. Since I taught at the same high school for fifteen years, I have intimate knowledge of the public persona a teacher has within a community, yet the balance teachers must strike find their personal lives, too.
For a few years I lived in the same community where I taught and found it to be an interesting experience. Teachers really are public figures in many ways, simply because of the sheer volume of lives they touch each term. So, when students would see me out walking my dog, or buying groceries, they would be either stunned or really excited — fun most of the time, but I did miss my privacy at times… and I taught in a first-ring suburb of St. Paul (not quite a small town…).
So, did I like Olive? Well, honestly, it really didn’t matter. In fact, I think I liked that Olive was not the most sympathetic character. Her strong, irascible nature is not only believable after a career working with middle-schoolers, but is probably why so many people trusted her, even if they did not particularly like her. I also was drawn to Olive’s vulnerability — that we are privy to, while the townspeople are not. Strout creates such a vivid, multi-layered portrait of humanity in this collection – that I was in awe and didn’t need to actually like Olive, although secretly I did…
So, there’s my review! I have heard from a few other readers regading their impressions and would love to hear more!