Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I found this book in the hotel “library” in Costa Rica and fell in love with the stories. The last page in the book about”love among the ruins” prompted me to post this for Valentine’s Day. It won the Pulitzer Prize and is on Oprah’s reading list. But before we get to the last paragraph, a brief review is in order.

Olive Kitteridge is the main character in all the stories of this book by the same name.  She is a retired school teacher with a sharp tongue but a good heart. The quote on the cover from Oprah Magazine says: “Perceptive, deeply empathetic…Olive is the axis around which these thirteen complex, relentlessly human narratives spin themselves into Elizabeth Strout’s unforgettable novel in stories.”

That’s as good a one-line review as you can get. The characters live in the small, fictional town of Crosby, Maine, and each story stands alone, although each one has Olive in it somewhere, either as a main character or just a character on the periphery of the story. She’s tough on the outside and has a hard time expressing her love and warmth that is there under her tough, old hide. She and her pharmacist husband, who is a main character in the stories, raise one child who moves to California and then to New York, leaving Olive and her husband surprised at his moves.

In each story of  “Smalltown, USA,” we get glimpses of each character in the story and of course, Olive, so that by the end of the book, Olive’s character is fully developed. Her husband dies after a spell in a nursing home, leaving Olive basically alone, because her son is too far to visit too often and his new wife and children overwhelm her when she goes to New York to visit.

What I like about Elizabeth Strout’s writing is that the characters sound real and believable, although somewhat entrenched in the small town way of life, and Olive is not too happy with the changes in her small town or the death of her husband of many years.

But Olive, or Ollie as her husband called her, plods on and at the end of the book, after her husband’s death, she befriends a widower, someone she never particularly liked, but finding him on the ground on her walk with her dog, she helps him get medical care and also recover. Then they become closer, and here is an excerpt from the last page that made an impact on me as a person who remarried when I was 65. Of course, the whole book leads up to this, so even though you can read each story separately, if you want to understand Olive’s point of view here, you will have to read the whole book .

What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know.  They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if they were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again…..
And so, if this man next to her now was not a man she would have chosen before this time, what did it matter? He most likely wouldn’t have chosen her either.  But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union–what pieces life took out of you….It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet.

This is a very powerful book about love in all its wonderful and terrible variations. I love her writing so much that I read her two previous books: Amy & Isabelle and Abide with Me. (I liked Amy & Isabelle better.) The book also has a A Reader’s Guide, so it can be used in a Book Club, which I am sure it already has, since it was published in 2008.

To order this book from Amazon.com, click on the icon below. Please not that my copy is an older one with a different color, while the link must be a newer cover. But it is the same book.

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