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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories by Elizabeth Strout

LibraryThing Early Reviewers

This is my review for the last Early Reviewer's Book that I received from LibraryThing. I finished this last month, but I wanted to post this on my blog and just hadn't gotten around to it yet. The book will be published on March 25, 2008.

Title: Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Copyright: 2007
Pages: 270
Format: ARC Paperback through LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program
Rating: 5/5 stars

Ah... Small Town, USA. There’s nothing quite like it. Starting out reading Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories, Elizabeth Strout’s most recent work, I felt that the book was more about Small Town, USA, than about Olive Kitteridge herself. In the end, how wrong I was. The book is as much about Olive Kitteridge as it is the small town of Crosby, ME, and initially the 13 vignettes that compose the story reflected more to me what living in a small town is like, and the connections that form with each inhabitant of the town. In the case of Olive, the reader is presented with a singular individual who either directly or incidentally connects to almost everyone in town. However, as the book progressed, I discovered that really, the book is about Olive Kitteridge; you are sent on a journey as Olive discovers who she is and where her place in the world will ultimately lead her.

Olive, a retired math teacher, is a force of nature unto herself. A strong woman of even stronger convictions, she looks at life as it really is, not how it should be perceived. She describes herself as "...not the least bit sophisticated. I'm essentially a peasant. And I have the strong passions and prejudices of a peasant." Forcing her way through a life that has not always gone the way she dreamt it would, Olive can surprise you with moments of such clarity and caring that they appear to catch her off-guard just as much as they do the reader. Her husband Henry, a pharmacist that is forced into early retirement after his pharmacy is sold to a larger outfit, balances Olive. Overly-optimistic at times and deeply understanding of his wife and her personal ideals, he is the one constant in her life that helps her through everything.

At first, I don’t know that I can say that I cared much for Olive as a character. Her problems and disappointments in life seemed of her own making and I found that I didn’t have much compassion for her. She was old, curmudgeonly, set in her ways and didn’t seem much interested in anyone but herself and her family. The further I read and as I reached the end of the book, I felt a stronger understanding of her life and where she finds herself in it, and I found that I had come to care for Olive and worried for her, her problems and her passions.

To be honest, I have not read either of Elizabeth Strout’s two previously published novels, so am not familiar with her writing style. I feel that possibly her strong point is in the full novel and not so much the short story. In several cases, I felt that I had been dropped into the middle of a story where I should already have known the characters, their surroundings and what was happening to them; it wouldn’t be until the end of the vignette that I had a clear understanding of the whole picture. In some cases this worked well, and in others it seemed that I felt lost in the reading. However, these few instances aside, the writing was beautiful. I was entranced by her prose in many instances ("A Little Burst" and "Basket of Trips" especially), and even the stories that were not amongst the strongest (such as "The Piano Player" and "Ship in a Bottle"), I still felt that Strout was presenting a clear understanding of what she wanted the reader to see. The stories are not all directly related to Olive; however, her presence is felt in each story. I enjoyed seeing how strong Olive's character was; that one woman could have such an impact on so many people, whether they knew it or not. Through Olive, the reader gains a strong understanding of life in a small town and how its inhabitants connect to each other; you also get to see how Olive sees herself and how she deals with life and aging throughout her journey.

In Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories, Elizabeth Strout presents life, not as it should be but as it really is, seen through the eyes of one woman in one small town. You may not care much for Olive at the beginning, but through the journey, you will grow with her and gain a greater understanding of what life should be, and not what it really is. I felt a little lost at the beginning of the book, much like Olive and her life. But throughout, I found myself more and more entranced, and much like Olive,  "[I] did not want to leave it yet."

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