By October 8, 2011 1 Comments Read More →

Fascinating Olive

I can’t stop thinking about Olive Kitteridge.

Olive, the book written by Elizabeth Strout (for which she was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), and Olive, the woman — a large-boned, blunt-talking retired schoolteacher living in a small Maine town — who dominates the pages of Strout’s engrossing novel.  Olive Kitteridge is the book that my library group discussed last month, and everybody who gathered for the meeting agreed it was an unforgettable reading experience.

Olive’s life is captured, along with those of her friends and neighbors, in a collection of sharply etched vignettes, each with a different point of view.  These short stories have been strung together to create a novel.  Each one is powerfully crafted and strong enough to stand on its own.  Most of the people in the group enjoyed the book’s unusual structure.

As we went around the table, everyone said they knew someone who reminded them of Olive.  She’s a person who isn’t easy to like.  She has strong opinions, and she’s not shy about voicing them.  She’s impatient, and sometimes she says hurtful things.  When she is the one who is hurt, she can resort to cruel retaliation.  She loves her son, her only child, in an obsessive manner that only serves to alienate him.  She finds that she cannot relate warmly to either of his wives.  When he moves away, out of the house that she and her mild-mannered pharmacist husband built for him, she is heartbroken.

Some members of the book group found the mood of the book depressing, but they had to admit it was brilliantly rendered.  Strout’s descriptions of the New England landscape are exquisite, and likewise, her ability to convey the feelings of people who yearn for love and who wrestle with loss and grief is very impressive.  Most of all — although perhaps more of interest to mature readers — Olive is a fully realized human being, and even when at times she is maliciously enjoying the misfortunes of others, she reminds us of our own weaknesses and shortcomings.

One woman in the group pronounced, “Every woman who has borne a son should read this book!”  Another remarked, “I started out not liking her — or the book — at all, but by the time I finished reading it, I was just overwhelmed  — it’s the best book I’ve read in a long, long time!”  As a man whose mother often had difficulty relating to both of my wives, I would definitely say that I “second that emotion.”

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

1 Comment on "Fascinating Olive"

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  1. misha says:

    Olive is truly a fascinating character. Complex, flawed, infuriating and, ultimately, relatable, forgivable, and totally memorable.

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