Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Published September 2008 by Random House
In this Pulitzer-prize winning novel (actually it's a collection of short stories), Strout explores the life of Olive Kitteridge, a retired middle school math teacher who is the kind of person that people avoid in her small town of Crosby. Olive was not a perfect neighbor, not a perfect wife and certainly not a perfect mother. She is abrasive, outspoken, and not in the least able to communicate well with anyone in her life. Her husband, Henry, was the town pharmacist until a big chain moved into town and Henry was beloved by everyone. Her son, Christopher, does everything he can to avoid his mother after he's an adult. But somehow, in some way, Strout is able to convince us that Olive is someone we should call about.
As a mother, Olive admits that she made mistakes but she says that she loved her son and believes that she raised him in a way so that he always knew that. She has had her own issues growing up that make the reader understand why she is the way she is, so you can understand why she might have been a cold mother. But Christopher remembers things differently. As readers, we are not given a full picture of the past so that we never reach a point where we can judge either party.
In some of the stories, Olive is something of a ship passing in the night; the reader almost misses her presence in the story. In others, she is a peripheral player. It was in those stories that I felt like Strout gave us glimpses of Olive that made her a more bearable person, such as the story where she sits in a car with a suicidal young man and just talks to him until he begins to doubt his choice. And when Olive takes her revenge on her brand new daughter-in-law, readers may just think that it was the most brilliant and realistic piece of revenge they've ever read and justifiable.
Throughout the book, Strout deals with issues of love, marriage and infidelity in all of it's guises as she writes about the people in the town of Crosby that cross paths with Olive. There are cases of unfulfilled extramarital love, a case of infidelity discovered in a seemingly happy marriage of decades, and a case of infidelity in a marriage where one person has given up on the physical relationship. Strout never passes judgement; she puts these situations out for the reader to consider.
My book club read this for our November selection and everyone liked this book. There is a lot here to discuss and I do recommend it for book clubs.