Olive Kitteridge produced a broad mixture of reactions in the group ranging from ‘I loved it’ to ‘I hated it’.
The book is set in a small coastal community in Maine and Olive is presented in a series of linked short stories – in some she appears fleetingly and we build a picture of how she is viewed by acquaintances, whilst in others she is the main protagonist and we see the world from her viewpoint. Many of the stories focus on turning points in people’s lives, and as such the book can seem very bleak – picking out the moments of drama in otherwise ordinary lives. The moments and stories are often those that are just below the surface in any community.
The book builds a portrait of a woman who is difficult, blunt, unpredictable and angry. She seems to lack self-awareness, and also the ability to receive and give affection. A lot of this probably stems from her father’s suicide mentioned in the second story, and she is her own worst enemy when it comes to close relationships – pushing away her very lovely husband Henry (we wished he appeared more) and becoming estranged from her son. But there is another side to Olive – she is clearly respected by some in her professional life as a teacher and she seems to sense intuitively when folk are desperate, and there are examples of her being with people in a very down to earth unfussy way.
We were divided about Elizabeth Strout’s writing style – it is concise with some lovely turns of phrase but it didn’t suit all. She provides vivid portraits of characters in just a few lines. As the New Yorker said ‘Strout animates the ordinary with astonishing force’. The short story format meant that the story didn’t have the flow of an ordinary novel so it felt disjointed to some.