Olive Kitteridge is a book about folks in Crosby, Maine, basically a collection of short stories that amount to a (light) novel. Each story is about someone in Crosby, Maine–sometimes Olive is the main character, and sometimes she makes an appearance as a supporting character or even in someone’s memory. Olive is a sourpuss middle-aged lady, big-boned and no-nonsense. She’s described by different characters as scary, large, imposing, and she knows these things about herself with a kind of partial self-awareness that felt extremely familiar.
Parts of this book, I simply loved. I loved the descriptions of Olive’s internal monologue, the way Strout so deftly describes fleeting, deep emotion. I love how the book is constructed such that every character is a main character–we’re all heroes in our own stories, aren’t we, after all? I love how you are can’t help but root for Olive, since she’s the character you know the most and you have special insight into her personality and thoughts and motivations…but at the same time you see exactly how other characters would find her off-putting, grumpy, strange…even abusive. I loved the way Strout examines old love, couples who have weathered their storms over the years and ended up in vastly different places. I loved the descriptions of Henry, Olive’s husband, so folksy, innocent, and kind, so opposite of Olive, but so realistically in love with her. I love the unabashed but gentle look at middle age, and particularly at a middle aged woman who is not (and has probably never been) beautiful, who is salty and off-putting and proud. I have not read very many books about characters like Olive.
There were definitely some chapters/short stories that felt too tangential-for isntance, the story about Rebecca was good, but because it was so sad, I think it needed a much stronger connection to the larger plot. It needed some redemption. I found the chapters with Olive’s grown son, Christopher, extremely hard to read, because both characters were so terrible to each other. I had to put it down occasionally to get over the feelings of frustration when they talked past each other, over and over again. It wasn’t an easy read, although the prose is wonderful and the characters are compelling. The ending was a bit warm and fuzzy for such a no-nonsense book; I liked it all the same, but I get why someone wouldn’t.
Strout’s prose really is lovely. This book reminded me of of listening to Prairie Home Companion on Sunday afternoon with my taciturn Wisconsin grandma. Halfway through, I thought, “this needs to be a Coen brothers movie”– humans just trying to get along, making mistakes and feeling hopeful and impetuous and in love and regretful, surprised by events that are just so ridiculous but also somehow so realistic. So I was happy to see that it’s being made into a movie, starring, of course, Frances McDormand. In the right hands, this will be a charming, insightful, funny movie, and I’m glad I read the book first.