Book Review: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is a Pulitzer Prize winner that tells the story of an aging retired school teacher through a series of short stories, many of which just mention Olive in passing. It’s an unusual approach to character development that kind of worked for me and kind of didn’t.

Okay, maybe what didn’t work for me was the character of Olive. She is a B. It’s not that she is intentionally cruel or anything, but she is mostly lacking compassion, kindness, warmth, and humor, so it was hard to read a whole book about her. I was hoping the author would slowly reveal some of those personality traits as she told each separate vignette, but what she revealed was a woman who had alienated her son, isn’t grateful enough for being married to a good man, and is terrified about living and dying alone. This last trait was unexpected because she often seems like an ox trampling unemotionally through life. It did make her more sympathetic and explained some of her behavior later in life. But it wasn’t enough.

The “short stories” that make up the chapters often center on characters that only know Olive peripherally – maybe she taught them at school or they knew her through her husband. And the themes of these other stories are typically about the depressing side of the human experience – suicide, death of a young spouse, alcoholism, adultery, aging, mental illness, loneliness. Just based on this book, you would think all parents mess up their kids and everyone cheats on their spouses physically or within their hearts.

If the author’s goal was to tell a story about “life,” then she fell short. She missed the joyful part of life where people laugh, enjoy each other’s company, feel content, and like their parents.

It’s odd which books win Pulitzers.

If you regularly follow my blog, you’ll know I don’t like depressing books. It seems like I’ve been reading heavy books recently, so I think I need to change my search criteria. I’m looking for light but smart books. If you can recommend some I’d really appreciate it!

And if you read Olive Kitteridge, what did you think? Set me straight if I missed something.

PS – If you’re looking for a light but smart TV series, my husband and I recently discovered The Durrells in Corfu. It’s a Masterpiece Theater production available through Amazon Prime. Very charming and witty.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

  1. Based on your review I will steer away from Olive Kitteridge because negativity is definitely not what I’m looking for in my reading. I would like to recommend The Time In Between by Maria Duenas, is one of my favorite novels. Although it takes place during the Spanish civil war and World War ll and contains sad elements, it is also filled with hope, love and integrity. I didn’t know much about Spanish history so found it very informative as well. You learn a bit about the rise of fascism from a different perspective since this book is a translation from Spanish. This book is like a dive into a classic movie like Casablanca.

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    • Hi Maureen! The Time in Between looks interesting and I’ve added it to my library list. The Spanish Civil War is fascinating to me because so many foreign nationals fought in it. It’s hard for me to grasp fighting in someone else’s civil war, but as I recall a lot of the fighters were strong communists, so it was about ideology for them.

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  2. I’m not sure this one sounds very redeeming. I will probably skip it, based on your recommendation. As for lighter books to add to your list – I know you liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, which I loved, too. I’ve just ordered the sequel, The Rosie Effect, which follows the protagonists as they navigate becoming first-time parents. If it’s as good as I hope, there’s one more in the series, The Rosie Result. Also, at night we’ve been watching Schitt’s Creek on Netflix. It’s so silly and funny and surprisingly sweet – we’ve really ended up liking the quirky characters!

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      • I will! In the meantime we started The Durrells in Corfu on your recommendation. It’s just wonderful! I was very excited to learn – from another friend – that the oldest son in the story line, Larry, grows up to be Lawrence Durrell in real life. He is the author of The Alexandria Quartet, four of the finest – and most difficult – novels I have ever read. I tackled them last summer, and they took three months to finish. But they were worth it! So how delightful to find this TV series with his (semi-fictional) backstory as a young author. Thanks for a great recommendation!

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  3. I did read Olive Kitteridge and it was a strange read for me. I kept waiting for it all to tie together at the end. But I kept thinking about the book and ended up reading the Olive Again. I don’t think I would recommend either book to anyone as they were both rather depressing and strange to me. But also strange in that the books and Olive seemed to stick in my memory while many books do not. Maybe because I don’t want to be an Olive. You hit it on the head – the books left out the joys of life.

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