In the last days before required reading takes over my days, I decided to check a longstanding resident off my “to read” list. I chose for the occasion Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. I’m glad I did.
Olive is a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine. Although she is the title character and narrates some of the stories, retired math teacher Olive Kitteridge appears in others as little more than a passing reference.
For me, the novel was a refreshing combination of realism and pathos. The sudden moments of tenderness from a blunt, scarred-and-scarring individual like Olive are truly poignant, and there are very few passages that seem to flow from authorial interjection rather than genuine characterization. Even minor characters are more than props. The novel asks thought-provoking questions about familial love, emotional wounds, memory and aging, and a human need for relationship.
Strout’s style, which reminds me in some ways of a contemporary Flannery O’Connor or Raymond Carver in its understatement and simultaneously strong sense of person and place, works well to develop Olive’s similarly opaque and complex personality.
All in all, I found it to be a fascinating and sometimes beautiful novel, and a great finish to my summer reading before school resumes.