This Pulitzer Prize winning novel, recently made into a film, is set in a small New England town by the edge of the Atlantic. It doesn’t tell the story of Olive Kitteridge in a conventional way, but shows her character and life tangentially, through a series of portraits of her family, and of the people who live in the town.
Each chapter recounts a separate incident, or episode. In some Olive is just a former teacher who is perhaps remembered for something she said long ago, or for some quality she had. However, occasionally this intervention turns out to have been crucial or life changing, unknown to Olive!
In other chapters she and her husband pass by the main protagonists like ships in the night: for example they attend the same church concert, or eat at the same restaurant, so they are on the same stage but not really central to the story. In only a few chapters are Olive and her family the main focus of the narrative. Thus Olive Kitteridge is an unusual book, and in some ways more akin to a series of short stories than a novel.
The different chapters and episodes introduce a range of fascinating and interesting characters who seem real and alive. They are rounded, ordinary people, not caricatures or cliches, despite Strout looking closely at a various modern problems and concerns that might have induced a cliched approach – anorexia, marital infidelity, parental neglect and so on. The writing is beautiful, precise, and evocative of both place and feeling.
Elizabeth Strout’s approach is a clever and interesting way of revealing the life and character of this 70 year old woman. The novel tells us much about what it is to be both old and human, showing the losses and failures she experiences, many of which are common to us all. Death and love, estrangement from parents, temptation to stray, the feelings of our inner hearts are all laid bare here. The novel shows few of Olive’s achievements, though there are several sections where her own compassion and humanity does shine through. Olive is not an easy person to get along with, though we don’t realise this straight away. As the story unfolds there are many hints from the author, and explicit comments from other characters. These gather pace and weight as the chapters progress and the dominant issue of the novel becomes a question about Olive’s self awareness, her ability to see and accept the criticisms of others and to learn from them, to develop as a person, to mend broken relationships and to let new relationships flourish.
The novel is very low key throughout so it’s not a page turner or a good choice if you are looking for thrilling dynamism. Nevertheless this is a great book, and the fact that it is so low key is essential to achieving the effects it does, so that minor incidents such as the theft of a blue bra become both hugely shocking and at the same time incredibly funny.