Friday, July 31, 2009

Sunshine Smackdown Review: Olive Kitteridge

Many years ago, I asked my boss why I seemed to get all the difficult clients. He explained that he always assigned the demanding ones to me, "because I know you can handle them."

I confess that when they called to express frustration or worse, I loved smoothing their ruffled feathers and bringing them around to being happy again. I was proud to tell my coworkers, "I love all my clients. But some of them are more lovable than others."

That's what I would say about the title character here, too. Olive is not very lovable. She tends to be quick with a smart remark, moody, cranky, prickly, taciturn, not very self-aware . . . . Need I go on? It would be easy not to like her very much.

But oh goodness, this "novel in stories" that bears her name is a delight. In some of the stories Olive is front and center, and we get to know her joys and sorrows, prejudices and weaknesses very well. In others, she just passes through the background and waves, while our attention focuses on someone else who lives in the same small town. All this in evocative, accessible prose.

I heard an interview with author Elizabeth Strout on NPR (which I can't find right now -- blast!), and she said she didn't write the whole book about Olive because such a large dose of Olive's personality might be a bit much to take. I agree. We just wouldn't want to spend that much time with her, you know? In which case, her name is perfect for her. Olives are a nice accent, but you wouldn't make a meal out of them. (Unless you are addicted to salt like I am. But that's another post.)

I am not a big fan of short stories, nor the "novel in stories" format. But here, they hang together beautifully. The precursors of this novel are probably Winesburg, Ohio and Spoon River Anthology, which also manage to make a collection of fragments seem like a whole. This novel covers a lot of ground. We find out many of the secrets lurking behind the idyllic facade of small towns: extra-marital longings, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, rifts between parents and children, petty scorekeeping, and all the rest. It's sometimes quite dark, as life would be, probably, if we knew everyone's secret thoughts and actions.

But it's also full of the brilliant, shiny moments of life: the little flashes of insight and humor, the softening of resentment into acceptance, the unexpected alliances that arise under stressful circumstances. Olive says and does plenty that's outrageous, such as stealing a single shoe from her new daughter-in-law's closet, just to season her infuriating smugness with a little bit of doubt. Olive imagines her daughter-in-law someday asking Olive's son, "Are you sure you haven't seen my shoe?" But there are moments of connection, when Olive and other people say or do just the right thing for someone who desperately needs it.

This is the best book I've read in a long time. Don't miss your chance to learn to love Olive, whether you find her lovable or not. She's worth the effort.


Three hours ago, while the sun was shining full tilt through the trees and across the back lawn, the local podiatrist, a middle-aged man named Christopher Kitteridge, was married to a woman from out of town named Suzanne. This is the first marriage for both of them, and the wedding has been a smallish, pleasant affair, with a flute player and baskets of yellow sweetheart roses placed inside and outside the house. So far, the polite cheerfulness of the guests seems to show no sign of running down, and Olive Kitteridge, standing by the picnic table, is thinking it's really high time everyone left.


  1. Sounds like a great book. Thanks for the excellent review!

  2. Great review of what sounds like really good book.

    I added your review to the Battle of the Prizes list.


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