Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge would hardly be considered new anymore (published in 2008), but I only discovered this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel during lockdown. Olive herself was the perfect companion for me in uncertain times. She is sturdy, no-nonsense, abrasive and prickly, but also frequently compassionate, surprisingly kind-hearted and open-minded.

            The novel is structured more like a collection of short stories rather than one traditional narrative, but each new chapter contains some connection to Olive Kitteridge and reveals an aspect of her heart, like another side of a craggy rock—some sides are muddy or sharp or ugly, but occasionally, if the rock is turned just so, a bit of diamond is revealed. There are moments when Olive lets the reader down, when she is unkind or selfish, choosing her own desires over her responsibility to others—her relationships with both her husband and her son are complicated and often fraught—but there are also moments when she surprises with her sudden care for the vulnerable or her ability to admit her own wrongdoing.

The beauty of the novel is that Strout creates a character who is just so human. Olive isn’t all one thing or another, she’s a complicated combination of good and bad. And there is hope in the fact that she is always growing, learning from her own mistakes and working to heal broken relationships, even when there doesn’t seem to be much progress. There were times when Olive had me laughing out loud and other times when her humanity brought me to tears. She’s the sort of character I wanted to take with me when I finished the story.

There is also a beautiful sense of setting and place in this novel. Strout brings a typical small town in Maine to life with so much force that I could hear the foghorns and water, and smell the lobstermen’s boats. I’ve spent every summer in Maine since I was small and I can say that Strout captures the culture and feel of the place with perfect accuracy.

This is a book for anyone who wants to get to know a place they may not have experienced before, who enjoys stories about every-day humanity, and who has the patience to get to know a complicated character. Olive isn’t exactly an obvious hero, but she’s lovable in her own way, and I’ve thought about her often since I closed the pages of her story.

Submitted by Corrie