Elizabeth Strout took an unusual approach with Olive Kitteridge. The book is a novel/short story hybrid, comprising 13 stories that could stand alone but are related: They all involve the small town of Crosby, Maine, and, to varying degrees, the title character. Olive is central to some of the stories and makes the briefest of appearances in others, yet together they build a full portrait of her. There is an arc to her development; you couldn’t randomly rearrange the stories.
Olive is one complicated character. A retired seventh-grade math teacher who has a big body and a personality to match, Olive swings between cruelty and compassion. She is full of feelings but has trouble expressing the positive ones; she is self-righteous and easily insulted, abrasive and opinionated. She can say horrible things one moment and comfort a suffering person another. Her mild husband, Henry, and depressed only child, Christopher, suffer particularly from her mood swings.
In Olive’s experiences and those of the characters into which her life fits in big or small ways, Strout constructs a comprehensive portrait of not just Olive but also the human condition. Many of the experiences are sad—infidelities and betrayals, divorce, family dysfunction, death (from accident, illness, suicide, and murder), aging, illness, eating disorder, depression—but the book ends on an upbeat note as Olive, then a widow, opens herself up to the possibility of newness.
Written in unobtrusive, vivid prose, Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
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