Literary Fiction

Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

2 September 2019
Olive Kitteridge Book Cover Olive Kitteridge
Elizabeth Strout
Random House Incorporated

The world of Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher in a small coastal town in Maine, is revealed in stories that explore her diverse roles in many lives, including a lounge singer haunted by a past love, her stoic husband, and her own resentful son.


Olive Kitteridge is a Pulitzer Prize Winner for fiction, which is breath-taking in its beauty and eloquence. The structure of the novel is 13 episodic stories, which provide a candid and searching insight into a small community in the coastal town of Crosby in Maine. It would be unfortunate to race through the pages without savouring the atmosphere, the wonderful sense of time, and the rich array of fascinating characters that enhance the human relationships on display. It takes the little breaks between stories to reflect on the mastery of prose and the observational expression of Elizabeth Strout. 

Olive Kitteridge is the indomitable presence throughout the book. Some stories have the faintest mention of Olive while in others she impacts with the overbearing resolve of a woman that is determined to get what she wants. Olive is rarely the focal point, but she acts as a magnet drawing each story to exist in her presence. 

Olive is an ex-school teacher, a tall and often clumsy woman, but as the years progress she becomes big,

“… her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seemed to become the size of a man’s. Olive minds – of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game, she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage.”

Olive has a formidable presence and a complexity that is intriguing and undefinable. While she offers very little filter in her comments and consideration of others and thinks it ludicrous to cry at weddings, she cries when she sees a young anorexic girl, Nina.

“Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina and said quietly, ‘I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.’
‘I’m not trying to,’ said Nina, defensively. ‘It’s not like I can help it.’
‘Oh, I know that. I know.’ Olive nodded.”

The first story is a touching story of her husband, Harry, who is a pharmacist, and his relationship with a young married assistant who tragically loses her husband. The relationship is subtly transformed from a platonic friendship to the delicate suggestion of deeper feelings as he allows himself to imagine what life would be like with this young woman. The emotional conflict burdens him until he finally asks Olive if she would ever leave him. “Oh, for God’s sake Henry. You could make a woman sick.” she responds.

Most of the following stories reverberate with a sense of betrayal. You can feel the connection with the characters, laugh through incidents, be astounded by some events, nod in recognition with many, and shed a tear or two at others. The writing is emotionally stimulating and reveals such vivid moments that give breath to sentiments you may not have been expecting.

This is a wonderful reading experience, infused with beautiful prose, images and feelings that we all encounter or witness throughout our lives. I would highly recommend this book. The reason why I jumped to read this book after it sitting on my bookshelf for so long, was that the sequel, Olive, Again, is due for release on 31st October this year.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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