Saturday, February 19, 2011

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I will start off by saying that I enjoyed this book very much, and I made myself read it a little more slowly than is my wont. I'm beginning to see a pattern in my efforts to read more slowly (and I am most thoroughly convinced that slow reading is better than fast reading, but old habits and all that, etc, etc.)

1. I determine that a book is worth reading slowly and I resolve to read it that way.

2. I read the first 1/3 or 1/2 of the book at a leisurely pace, taking my time to enjoy the language and think about the development of the story.

3. I finish the book at the break-neck reading pace to which I am accustomed, and come up for air.

That's how I read Olive Kitteridge.

This book has been on my "to be read" list for long enough that I had forgotten the reasons and reviews that led me to put it there in the first place. I would almost hesitate to call it a novel in the usual sense, because if there is a plot, it is fractured beyond recognition.

How can I explain this book?

Olive Kitteridge is a wife, a mother, a teacher, and a lifetime-resident of a small community in New England. Because she lives her whole life in this one place, she interacts over many years with her students (who grow up, and remember her in different ways), her neighbors, and her family (husband and son).

Each chapter is a stand-alone event. If they were photographs (but they are not static, and I don't really want to compare them to photographs), some of them would be close-ups of Olive alone, and others would be photos of, for example, a couple sitting on a bench, in which Olive happened to be walking past at the moment, and so she appears in the far edge of the frame. Other photographs might be close-ups of people busy with their own lives, who happen to be thinking about Olive, so you can't really see her in the picture at all, and only the subject of the photograph knows she is there. Other chapters unfold more like home-movies, and we get a brief close-up glimpse of Olive's life.

You see, it's complicated. This book is about a woman, Olive Kitteridge, and she is not really a pleasant person. She physically unattractive, and she appears brusque and unfeeling. There is a another side of her, but for most people the lovable parts of Olive are buried way too deep to find--they aren't going to get past the genuinely unpleasant aspects of her nature.

As I read through the book, chapter by chapter, I grew gradually to understand her a little better. She wasn't really a happy woman, and much of her unhappiness was the result of her own behavior. You meet people like that in real life. At the same time, I grew gradually to understand that Olive didn't waste her time feeling sorry for herself--at least, not for long. She found ways to deal with her unhappiness (you can't always make it go away), some of them productive and healthy, others not so much.

Nevertheless, the impression I was left with at the end of the book is that even a person who seems on the surface to be utterly unpleasant is still very human--with needs and feelings that are worthy of consideration. Olive is a very, very complex person, but in that way, she is representative of people everywhere--especially the ones who make a bad impression from the start.

I enjoyed Olive Kitteridge very much, because I enjoy character-driven books and don't care much about plot. Olive isn't the only person whose character is drawn in sharp relief in this book--there are many others--but hers is the one that is sounded in depth. This is the first book that I've read by Elizabeth Strout, but the rest of her books are now on my "to be read" list.

I don't feel as if I've said much about the book, so I'll add one more thing. Olive lives in a small community, as I mentioned, and the story draws that community into focus in several ways. We see the continuity of Olive's students growing to adulthood and either living in town or moving away or coming back. The changes of time and modernization are felt, as the corner drugstore is bought out by a big chain. The shocking effect on a community of violence or tragedy plays a role. Olive is part of a bigger picture, and the book includes that bigger picture as well as its focus on Olive, and is part of what makes this a good book.

Afterthoughts: I read this book on my Kindle. Only when I needed an image for this post was I reminded that this book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2009. It is considered a series of 13 individual stories (which explains my sense of fractured plot), not a novel. I probably added this to my "want to read" list in the first place because it won the Pulitzer, but I did not realize or remember that while I was reading the book, so my review as it stands above was written in ignorance of the fact that the book was so acclaimed. I'm not sure why that makes a difference, but I feel that it does--I liked the book for its own merits, and much better than the last prize-winner I read.


At 3:57 PM , Blogger Melissa said...

I read this last year, and it was one of my favorites of 2010 (and of all time, truth be told). I absolutely loved this book, and I love your comparison of the photographs. That's exactly the right description for this book.

At 4:59 PM , Blogger Sarah said...

Wonderful review... I read this book last year, and I remember slowly coming to respect, if not like, Olive. I really enjoyed how the individual stories came together to show the big picture.

At 10:47 PM , Blogger Carol in Oregon said...

I haven't read this one, but have seen mixed reviews for it. Because of your review, I'm more inclined to read it now. Thank you.

At 5:46 PM , Blogger Carol said...

Hi Karen!

I am thankful that I have re-read your review. OK just came in the mail to me. But I SO appreciate your comments on slow reading.

I'm beginning to think that I have some psycho thing going on in my reading. I find myself reading too fast and all I can attribute it too is the fear of dying with books unread. Which. is. ridiculous.

So your words were a measure of wisdom, not to mention sanity, in my life this morning.

Thank you!

At 5:46 PM , Blogger Carol said...

OK, that's me, Carol in Oregon. Why did THAT change?

At 1:40 AM , Blogger Cindy said...

I just hopped over here to look up your posts on The Bible and Teaching... but I had to see what you thought of Olive since I just finished the OK book and strangely enjoyed it. I didn't really plan to read it because of the mixed reviews but I am glad that I did. Not sure if I can recommend it because I don't think it will have universal appeal but I enjoyed it.

At 9:39 AM , Blogger Carol in Oregon said...

Update: It's me back again. I read OK the week before Christmas when I got a horrific case of the flu. My digestive system was "off" but, strangely, my head was clear.

Olive Kitteridge was good company for me. Just enough cantankerous to match my state of being.

Her community seemed grimmer than, say, Port William or Mitford.

But I was glad to have read it.


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