Will Byrnes's Reviews > Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
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Jun 29, 09

Read in June, 2009

Olive Kitteredge is a collection of stories that constitute a novel. They are not as closely woven together as the multigenerational tales in works by Louise Erdrich, another writer who likes to collect small parts into a larger whole, but Strout has, in telling stories of many characters, put together a compelling portrait of a small town. I was reminded of Spoon River, as we learn some of the secrets each of the main characters protect. Lake Wobegon came to mind, as well, but this is much less folksy. The book most resembles Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s joined tales of alienation in small-town America. Olive Kitteredge is the organizational core connecting the novel's thirteen stories. She appears in each one, sometimes as a primary character, sometimes as a secondary and in others by one of the characters referring to her.

Loneliness is the predominant theme in the town of Crosby, Maine, loneliness or the fear of it. Most of the stories touch on relationships sagging, empty or gone, getting through emotional hard times and wondering if it is all worth the effort. There is a chilly New England sensibility here, characters unable to move past their Yankee reticence. Communication is guarded, often absent, but always made manifest in actions, if not words. Some succumb to their worst impulses. Others find their way through to some sort of reconciliation with life’s travails. Yet hope pops up frequently enough, like crocuses in March.

Olive journeys through her trials, her marriage, her relationship with her son, potential marital digressions. She seems clueless as to her affect on others, and can be glaringly harsh, while also displaying a capacity for kindness and understanding.

The writing is brilliant, taut, dense, a torte, and thus, a joy to be savored. A short-story writer’s talent for telling large amounts in small spaces, repeated a very lucky thirteen times.

I felt the tales had maybe a bit too much personal resonance. I recognized emotions, if not always specific situations, (and yes, some specific situations too) that I have experienced, and saw, through the eyes of this third-party, experiences that were likely to have been a part of the history of people in my life. Is it a good thing that a writer can make you squirm through such recognition?

Olive grows as a character, gaining some self-awareness, softening some hard edges, finding some light in a dark place, as others succeed or fail around her. This novel, though, is a full-fledged beacon. Wear shades, and enjoy.
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Comments (showing 1-11)

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Claire S Excellent review again, Will, thanks! A friend of mine mentioned that she just adored this, back in April. Sounds really wonderful!

message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Kate wrote: "Delicious book.

"telling large amounts in small spaces, repeated 13 times."

That's very suited, nicely put."

Thank you for your kind words. The book was wonderful, even if it sometimes poked sensitive parts.

Will Byrnes Katie wrote: "Excellent review again, Will, thanks! A friend of mine mentioned that she just adored this, back in April. Sounds really wonderful!"

Thanks for your kindness. It really is a wonderful book, the more so for me, maybe, than for some younger readers, as I am not so far removed from Olive's generation, and can appreciate the more ancient world in which she has lived, chronologically, if not geographically.

BTW, I am working on a write up for another 5-star (I am pretty stingy with my 5-star ratings) book, (non-fiction) one you will absolutely have to read, if you have not yet done so.

Claire S Sounds great.. it's funny you mention ancient. I was at a friend's 50th birthday party at an Outback Steakhouse last night, and the one person who gave him a present gave him a copy of 'National Geographic' about Ancient Civilizations, for reminiscing, etc.. brutal.
Anyway, I'm not that far behind, (my other friend who spoke highly of this is mid-50's or so), and so will have that appreciation of those times as well, I expect.
And thanks for the recommendation! More comments on that over there..

Claire S I've started reading this finally, truly is great! She's so, um, direct! I'm contrasting/comparing here with the horrible white women in 'The Help', and grumpiness etc.. vs blatant racist hostility. Fascinating.

Will Byrnes Yes, it is. I have read a few more interesting works of late. The Ballad of Trenchmouth Tagggart is a sort-of Little Big Man, but looking at West Virginia instead of Native American issues. I am struggling with my writeup, but it is definitely a worthwhile read. The other is Housekeeping, written in 1980 by Marilyn Robinson. Very interesting stuff, having to do with identity, transcendentalism, place, and very much about loss. It will make you sad, but in a good way.

Claire S Sounds great! Looking forward to your writings about them!

Dave Thanks Will. I am almost done with Olive Kitteridge. I came to look at reviews to see if anybody else connected this work to Winesburg, Ohio. I think the comparison is impossible to miss. Your review validated my connection, which I was beginning to think was daft as I read through review after review. P.S. - I'm loving O.K. - much more than Winesburg, Ohio.

message 3: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Yup, I think squirming is good sometimes.

An excellent review Will.

message 2: by Gary the (new)

Gary the SophistiCat I recommended this to some of the ladies in my book club after we hit a discordant note over The Burgess Boys -the men in the room were less than enthusiastic about it. I realized that I remembered almost nothing about it but your terrific review- do you write any other kind?- brought it home for me.

message 1: by Melanie (new) - added it

Melanie Sounds fantastic! Will have to get my hands on this one.

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