Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2009

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Olive Kitteridge is described as a ”novel in stories”. I’m not a big fan of short stories, and so wasn’t convinced that I’d enjoy this book, but as it won the Pulitzer prize I thought I’d give it a try.

I think the emphasis on this being a collection of short stories is misleading, as it is essentially just a novel about one woman, Olive Kitteridge. The story is told through the eyes of various people who knew her, capturing the important moments in her life,  in what at first, are seemingly random snippets. The use of small-town gossip, to tell much of the story was a clever medium, which I haven’t seen used before.

The book begins quite slowly, and I have to admit that for the first few chapters I didn’t know what to make of it. The writing was very vivid and powerful, but the large number of characters meant that I wasn’t sure who, or what, was important. About a third of the way through things began to fall into place. Olive’s character became prominent, and I felt that I understood what was happening. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think it is important that you know that the overwhelming emotion I felt on completing the book was that of heartbreak. This book is incredibly touching, and packed with feelings of sadness, and loss. It questions which things are important in life, and examines the relationships between family members who have forgotten how to love each other. Olive’s emotions are powerful and realistic. All mothers will sympathise with her feelings of isolation, as her only son distances himself from her.

Overall, I found this to be an insightful, touching novel on the reflections of an old woman nearing death. It is a great book, and I think it is worthy of the Pulitzer prize, but I’m not sure it will stand the test of time. I think it will probably end up on that list of ‘the most forgotten Pulitzers’ in 50 years time. Do you think this is a worthy winner of the Pulitzer prize?

Recommended to anyone who has the patience to piece together a great story.

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This is the first of Elizabeth Strout’s book s which I have read, but I am tempted to read more.

Have you read any of her books?

Which one did you prefer?

I look forward to hearing your opinions!

 


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24 Comments

  1. Dorte H says:

    First to comment!
    But probably not the world´s most original blog comment:
    Jackie, I have an award for you ;)

  2. Molly says:

    Well, I am afraid that I cannot answer any of your great questions because I have not read the book (yet) nor have I read any other books by this author.

    I did thoroughly enjoy your review, however, and would very much like to read this recent Pulitzer Prize novel over the summer.

  3. Frances says:

    Loved this book, and feel it was deserving of the award. I was a little hesitant about reading it but so glad I did. I posted on it here:http://nonsuchbook.typepad.com/nonsuch_book/2009/01/olive-kitteridge-reading-the-grotesque.html
    Am a little mystified by the UK cover though. And I usually prefer UK jacket design. I think it could give some the wrong impression of the novel. What do you think?

  4. Jackie says:

    Dorte – Congratulations on being the first to comment!! Thank you for the award – it seems to be my day for awards today! I’m feeling very special!

    Molly – I think it would make a great summer read. I look forward to hearing your thoughts once you”ve read it.

  5. Jackie says:

    Frances – I agree with you completely – the picture on the front is a bit misleading, or do you think they chose it to show how much she changed over the years? Perhaps Olive once looked like that? If so, the cover is there to re-enforce the point that she has lost her beauty along with everything else? I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks about this.

  6. Sandy says:

    EW claimed that Olive was “the year’s most riveting fictional character” and named it #3 on the top ten reads of 2008. I pretty much trust EW and their opinions, and had this book in my not-short-term sights. I maybe what I need to do is make myself a challenge next year to read EW’s top 10, because I can’t seem to get to them otherwise. Since the Pulitzer award, however, this one is getting more hype, so perhaps it will move up my list!

  7. Karen says:

    This one sounds pretty powerful (maybe a little too full of emotions for me to take on at the moment – am going through a phase of just wanting some light reading!). The way you have described it makes it sound a little like The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (which is one of my favourite books).

  8. Jackie says:

    Sandy – I’ve never read Entertainment Weekly, but do keep seeing it mentioned in the blogging world. I’d be happy to join you in a EW top ten read next year.

    Karen – The Stone Diaries is on my TBR challenge list, so I’ll be reading it soon. I look forward to comparing the two!

  9. Matthew says:

    This book is up next for me. I have flipped through it and determined that it’s not a novel made of short stories. I think whoever wrote the blurb is very misleading. So are some of the critics–did they really read the book?

    Anyway, medium with which it’s written, and that now it sacks the Pulitzer Price, make me really want to read it.

  10. Jackie says:

    Matthew – I wonder if the critics read the book sometimes too! Each chapter is a short story, and I’ve been wondering if they would work out of sequence. By the end of the book I didn’t notice they were short stories, as I was so engrossed in the characters. I may have to go back and read a random one from near the end, to see if it does work independently. I look forward to reading your comments on it.

  11. Beth F says:

    Great review. I’m still on the fence about it — short stories, not short stories, interlinked stories . . . I may get to it because I trust your opinion, but it won’t be soon.

  12. Rebecca Reid says:

    I have heard something similar: that it is not a collection of stories and should not be read as such. I have not read it, so I can’t comment on the “lasting” aspect of it, but I think that’s very interesting. I’m very curious now.

  13. Jackie says:

    Beth – I don’t think this is a book that needs to be rushed out and read straight away. It is a good, thought provoking book, but it is probably worth waiting until you can pick a copy up from the library, as it isn’t a keeper for me.

    Rebecca – I look forward to hearing your thoughts if you do decide to give it a go – one of it’s main plus points is that is had been uniquely written, so it is hard to categorise it.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I can’t imagine Olive ever looking like that or selecting a dress like that for herself. Funny to me.

    The format is short story cycle in which all pieces can exist independently but when taken as a whole inform each other. In the tradition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio as well as others. Not just the blurb but the Pulitzer committee that recognize it as such.

    1. Jackie says:

      Winesburg, Ohio looks like a great book. I hadn’t heard of it before you mentioned it, but it is on my wishlist now – thank you!

  15. softdrink says:

    I was going to comment on the cover, and then saw it had already been mentioned. To me that cover is all wrong…I can’t picture any of the women in that dress. And why does it look like she’s sitting in a canoe? Also, the font seems all wrong.

    Geez, I’m so picky, huh?

    I wans’t going to read this book…it didn’t sound appealing at all, when I first heard of it…but the US cover kept grabbing me, with just the hint of a house showing. And I was surprised by how much I ended up liking the book.

  16. Jackie says:

    softdrink – lol – I hadn’t noticed the canoe before! Olive would never have gone near a canoe!! I agree – the US cover is much better.

  17. I’d heard this title before, but didn’t know what it was about. It does sound interesting though and I’ll have to get a copy.

  18. Olive Kittridge is up next for me. I read all the Pulitzers and sometimes like them, sometimes not. With your description of if (the title character as seen through the eyes of various people in the form of short stories) is intriguing. I think the Pulitzer committee looks for the different approach to viewing the American life — so this would fit with that scheme. I’ve read a couple of Strout’s books – Amy & Isabelle which I thoroughly liked and Abide With Me, which I don’t remember! go figure … Anyway. am looking forward to reading the book and putting my review on my blog. Good work in your April reads!

  19. Jackie says:

    Jan – I think I have a copy of Amy & Isabelle here. I’ll have to get round to reading it at some point – thank you for your recommendation.

  20. I find the Pulitzer often rewards books the committee perceives as “important” or “morally edifying” rather than skillfully. But I’ve read many of last year’s books (Home, A Mercy, City of Refuge, most of Shadow Country, Disquiet, Harry, Revised and My Revolutions) though not yet Olive, and while they were good, I didn’t think deserving, sos perhaps Olive is.

    FYI on Entertainment Weekly: they’ve dumbed it down. Last Dec. they laid off book reviewer Jennifer Reese, was the author of the 2007 and 2008 best-of lists, both of which I thought were great. EW’s book section is now, IMO, shorter and less good. Look up online reviews by Reese; I don’t recommend consulting EW’s current book section.

  21. Jackie says:

    Girl Detective – Thank you for letting me know about EW. That is so sad. I’ll make sure I search for Jennifer Reese on the Internet to see what she recommends for this year.

  22. Andy says:

    I thought this was a powerful novel about a set of characters I found it difficult to sympathise with. Olive is not presented as being attractive in any way – she is big and overeats; she is opinionated and outspoken, even rude at times; she regularly grabs the wrong end of the stick and beats people with it. However, as the novel progresses, I grew very fond of her. Her relationship with her son is tragi-comic and her irritation with her ‘best friend,’ Bunny, is apparent later in the book. She learns a kind of tolerance as the novel develops and I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the work. It also struck me that this is a novel about people growing old who still have passion and vigour, even if their bodies might be difficult to cope with. Reminded me of my Dad, who is close to 80. He still gets worked up about some things and enjoys his holidays and routines. He remarried, too, after Mum died.

    I also thought that Strout’s writing was brilliant. She has the ability to capture mood, emotion, atmosphere in short, pithy sentences. She clearly knows the place where the novel takes place because her depiction of it is so apt, perfect for the setting of the stories. For instance, the contrast between Olive’s walks by the river in Crosby and her walk in the New York park is both amusing and poignant. I really enjoyed the sentiments at the end of the book, after she finds Jack Kennison keeled over.

    I think this is a fabulous novel and a deserving winner of a Pulitzer or any prize.

  23. Jo Verity says:

    I have read and thoroughly enjoyed Strout’s ‘The Burgess Boys’ and ‘Amy and Isabelle’. Only came to her recently and love her writing. I’d go ‘The Burgess Boys’ next.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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