Tart, sorrowful Olive Kitteridge is the moody battle-ax intersecting each of Elizabeth Strout's exquisitely spare new "novel in stories". Imperfect and struggling, Strout's characters grind through the dulling routines of ordinary domestic life in churchgoing Crosby, Maine: the drudgery of fixing supper night after night or shivering through a lukewarm show. They are awkward but authentic. "Patrick McCarthy...perspired so much that splotches of his shirt would be wet, at times even down over his breasts, so the poor fellow looked to be lactating," observes Strout.
Olive is a retired math teacher with the habit of saying "these weird things, very powerfully", which agitates her students, natch. Henry, her husband, is a gentle pharmacist who dispenses "pills and syrups and syringes" yet cannot cure his own wife's destructive eruptions. Their melancholy son, Christopher, grows into a distant teenager then a brittle adult. He inherits his mother's tormented relationship with depression.
Olive and Henry don't anchor all 13 tales. Points of view shift, revealing a wistful lounge singer and the 11-year-old daughter of a cracked former beauty queen among them. Narrator Sandra Burr mostly nails the flat, dawdling Down East accent ("ayuh") of coastal Maine. She refines Olive's bluster by pitching her voice low and slow and growly, thus hinting at the despondency behind Olive's attacks. As for ponderous Henry, Burr permeates his dialogue with apologetic throat-clearings to channel how "inwardly, he suffered the quiet trepidations of a man who had witnessed twice in childhood the nervous breakdowns of a mother".
Burr isn't showy about her extraordinary range, though she easily could be. Olive Kitteridge thrives largely because she invests each character with distinguishable emotions. Nina White, anorexic and wasting into bones, begins all zippy teen inflection and finishes in subdued, unlit tones. Burr embodies Kevin, a young psychiatrist revisiting his mother's suicide, with the raw rasp of a hurting dude. The single misstep Burr makes in an otherwise faultless audio rendering is oozing too much buttery lilt as Jane, a housewife who kicks up her 75-year-old husband's adulterous betrayal in the midst of revived marital bliss.
Strout chronicles love, loss, infidelity, and aging within the cyclical framework of time passing. Christopher divorces, remarries, and fathers a child. Henry suffers a massive stroke, becomes paralyzed, then dies. Olive shows herself to be capable of deep kindness and vulnerability. When zonked by an unexpected romance with a widower while still grieving Henry, 74-year-old Olive puzzles, "Here they were...two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union - what pieces life took out you." And, with that, Olive Kitteridge's redemption becomes a fait accompli. Nita Rao
Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2009
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer's eyes, it's in essence the whole world. The lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human dramas: desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.
At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn't always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive's own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.
As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life - sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition - its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.
©2008 Elizabeth Strout; (P)2008 Brilliance Audio
These short stories, which collectively form a meditation on aging and connection (or disconnection) and love, are linked by shared characters (especially Olive Kittredge, who appears in all of them). They are set in a small town in Maine, and at times you can feel the salt in the air. Some of the characters are more compelling than others, but Olive is the most memorable: complicated and frustrating and ultimately wise and appealing. This is not a novel but rather a "novel in stories," a format that turns out to feel very different from a novel. In some ways it's the best of both worlds: you experience the vignettes, the moments in time, that constitute the modern short story--but also have some sense of the wider context in which these episodes are occurring.
The reading was generally good, though I did feel annoyed by the slow, halting Maine (?) cadence that the narrator used with some characters. I noticed it less over time, fortunately.
If you like modern short stories of the New Yorker type but also like more meaty novels, I'd recommend this book. I don't think I'll be forgetting the character of Olive anytime soon, and I'm grateful to have known her in the (audible) pages of this book.
Insightfully written short stories weave together to make a fascinating picture of one woman and a variety of people living in a small town in costal Maine. Haunting, sad, mysterious and sometimes hopeful. This resulting novel makes you stop and think. Heart breaking one minute and funny the next. Definitely one of the best character studies I've read in years. The narrator, Sandra Burr handles the accents well and keeps the pace of the reading upbeat and engaging. Listening is like piecing together a puzzle as each story adds another angle or bit of information. Worth the effort.
"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." --Lemony Snicket
I absolutely loved being in Olive's world - learning about her husband, students, grown son, and neighbors. She's not necessarily a likeable character all the time, but I really appreciated that she owned her crankiness. She is authentic in her bluntness and exposing her flaws, and Sandra Burr completes the portrait of Olive with a Maine accent that is spot-on.
"Oh, Olive!" I found myself frequently sighing throughout this collection of linked short stories. She isn't the central character in every story, which was good -- sometimes I needed a break from her, but then I'd start to miss her and I would be glad when she returned in the next story. We all know an Olive (a woman, probably a teacher, who terrified us with her hardness and then shocked us with some deep kindness).
I wasn't sure I wanted to listen to short stories, preferring audio books with a single central narrative, but I'm so glad I listened to "Olive Kitteridge." Instead of a strong narrative line, we get powerful characterization and psychological suspense (what happened to this person to make him like this? what did that couple's son do to end up in prison? will Olive learn to forgive? will she learn anything?)
"Olive Kitteridge" is a wise, delicately balanced, and convincingly-narrated collection. The last line made me break down and cry in the middle of the street. Oh, Olive!
I recently ordered this audiobook and feel compelled to chime in immediately to warn buyers. What a lot of people are saying about the narration is that it is awful. This is true. I have not finished listening but almost feel like I will have to force myself. The narrator uses voices for the characters, notably Olive and Henry the main characters, that sound like she is immitating an old man or woman from a Mother Goose story. She does this even in the parts of the audio when the characters are not terribly old. The accent she gives them is laughable as well. They sound like a ninety year old, stuffy, British couple. (oddly with a school aged child). You may miss much of the audio as your brain works overtime trying to remind itself of the ages of the characters and what they must appear to be in the authors true vision.
I would have given this book more stars on the basis of the book, but the narrator really spoiled this for me. She seemed to have the idea (shared by too many narrators, I think) that characters mean "characters." Time to put on funny voices, silly accents, etc. And this was particularly bad because the lead character, Olive, is an older lady who appears in most of the stories and the narrator would put on what I assume she thinks is an old lady voice - shaky and with a New England accent. It kept her - and subsequently me - from really feeling any of the emotions Olive experienced. Read this one in paper.
I liked this book, even though I usually stay away from anything remotely resembling a short story collection. But I liked the connectedness of these stories, centered around one character, and I found the writing to be refreshingly honest, giving voice to the darker thoughts that we all must have at one time or another. And I thought the author created an appealing inner landscape for an otherwise unappealing character.
I didn't like the abrupt transitions between stories, the endings which were almost surgical in their finality, and it was a challenge to keep on caring about a new group of characters over and over again. I also did not like the "all in a day's routine" quality of the various infidelities, and thought the characters had cavalier attitudes about their episodes of dalliance.
The inclusion of local accents in the narration created an ambiance of provinciality which was out of touch with many of the characters' sophistication. I would have preferred an unaccented narration.
Be careful, though - if you don't pay attention, you'll suddenly find yourself surrounded by a new cast of characters in the time it takes you to nod off.
This novel was very difficult to "get into" at first. The stories seem to drift back and forth across a small Maine town, involving either Olive herself, or people who she has touched with her life.
The book itself was, on the whole, quite good and the underlying message was extremely poignant. However, there were two things that kept this from being a 5-star entry:
One was the reader. I have listened to Sandra Burr before and liked her fine, but she should stick to books with either very little dialog, or only one or two main characters. The "hokey" New England accent was horrible and the switch from narration to dialog was never smooth. This made the storylines difficult to follow.
Second was the smattering of local references to Maine. They were disjointed, random, disconnected and misplaced. When a writer makes reference to a real place, it needs to BE a real place in the novel. I live near Cooks Corner. But my Cooks Corner is not the one in the book. Neither is my Moody's. Portland and Bangor are far enough apart that someone won't go from one to the other for a job with out a significant move. Rather than bring Maine to the story, it actaully had the opposite affect. It made the story take place nowhere. And that is sad because New England IS populated with people like Olive and Henry. This could have been so much better.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize was my first clue that "Olive Kitteridge" must be a very good book. I found the author to be extremely perceptive in showing us what life and growing old means to Olive and to many of the people in her life. Strout shows us also the variety of ways they impact each other in touching, sad and occasionally humorous ways. I loved her artful construction of the book into a series of interrelated short stories. A true masterpiece.
Retired CFO, Army wife, Mom of five, Grandma of six, two sons who served in combat, love to read books that reflect my values and faith, love mysteries, historical, military stories, and books that don't waste my time . . . if it doesn't have an ending that was worth the wait, I'm not a happy camper.
I wasn't expecting to like this book quite so much . . . and I'm puzzled at the reviews who protest so that they can't stand Olive . . . I have finally decided they must all be under the age of 50 and have not come face to face with the mistakes they have made themselves, when the girl inside comes barreling right into the grown woman and there's hell to pay. When we are young, we are always sure we are right, and being right takes a high toll . . . on ourselves, our kids, and most of all those we love . . . having to be right, well, that's just another ploy to cover up the fact that we're afraid . . . afraid we may NOT be right, afraid to let too much of ourselves go to those we love, afraid to be too needy . . . This is a very good audio book, but if you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
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