I didn't know what I was getting into when I began reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. That's kind of what I do: I put a book on my TBR list because of a glowing recommendation or 12, and then I forget all details about the book, completely trusting myself that I want to read it. And so I had no idea that Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 individual stories that take place in the little town of Crosby, Maine, all linked by one formidable woman: Olive Kitteridge.
In many ways it's a modern-day Winesburg, Ohio, although a bit more cheerful, if my memory serves me right. I haven't read Sherwood Anderson's collection of linked stories in over 20 years, but I remember feeling rather depressed upon finishing. (Obviously, I'll have to go back and read this now.) Strout follows a similar formula in Olive Kitteridge. Each story is a slice of life of one character or family in Crosby, Maine: a young man about to commit suicide, a widow who discovers that her husband had an affair, an anorexic addict. Somewhere in the story his or her life crosses paths with Olive Kitteridge. Sometimes Olive just has a cameo, but often she plays a pivotal role in the story.
The stories encompass about 30 years, from the time Olive is a middle-school English teacher who terrifies most students, to her life as a widow, struggling to come to terms with who she was and is. In stories that feature other characters, we see Olive is a variety of dimensions: is she a hardened old witch, or a compassionate caretaker? Was she an abusive mother or an encouraging friend? If you've ever experienced that disconcerting feeling that comes when someone describes you in a surprising way—a way that you don't think about yourself—you'll appreciate the way Strout reveals the multi-dimensional Olive.
I've been saying this a lot lately (October and November have been great reading months!), but Olive Kitteridge will surely land on my Top 10 list this year. Beautiful writing, fascinating stories, and rich characters—it's all there. I don't always say this, but I'm glad this one won last year's Pulitzer.
Other Reviews of Olive Kitteridge
Babette's Book Blog
She Is Too Fond of Books
Home Girl's Book Blog
Gently Hew Stone
Peeking Between the Pages
Book Club Classics