Life As We-and Olive-Know It

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

I have to say, I really enjoyed reading this book.  While Elizabeth Strout’s “novel in stories” stirring tale of one woman’s life and legacy on her small hometown has been endowed with a Pulitzer, it has not been altogether positively perceived by reviews I’ve read.  Indeed the title character is flawed, but I not only identified with and liked her, but finished the final story happy that she had gained an understanding of the life she lead.

While each story focuses on a different denizen of Crosby, Maine, retired schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge is omnipresent.  Beginning with the first story, the tale of Henry Kitteridge, Olive’s husband, and the liking he took to a needy woman who clerked in his pharmacy for a period of time, the town’s perception of Olive is steadily revealed.  At times she is presented as brash, but at others she is both perceptive and insightful.  While she is often verbally cruel to her husband and emotionally smothering to her son, she correctly perceives sorrow and pain in the psyches of the seventh grade students she teaches.  In fact, it is a testament to her keen ability to understand and identify the ailments of others that many of the stories in the book are told from the point of view of one of Olive’s former pupils.

A theme throughout the book is Olive’s desire to witness pain in others in order to be comforted with the knowledge that she is not alone.  However, each time she expects to experience this solace, she leaves the scene empty-handed, and believes herself to be alone while others have someone.  It is only in the book’s final story, through her relationship with Jack Kennison, that Olive opens herself to the idea of unabashed communion with another person.  In doing so, her own suffering is alleviated.

It is frustrating, however, that through to the end, Olive does not show much growth as a person.  However, her ability to comprehend the complexities of her own character, and the importance of embracing the small moments of love in our lives, is an exhibition of wisdom worth reporting.  I truly enjoyed reading this book and find it absolutely deserving of its Pulitzer win.

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