Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout

Summary: A collection of short stories centers around the life of Olive Kitteridge, an irritable and callous retired public school teacher. Olive is the center of some of the stories and is in the outermost periphery in others.

Musings: Although dealing with a different cultural population (aging white New Englanders, mostly) than Interpreter of Maladies, Strout's book, in some ways, follows many of the same themes as Lahiri's work. Like Interpreter, loneliness seems to envelop the majority of characters as they fail to make connections and relationships succeed in the way they want. An emphasis is placed on individuals' isolation, even when surrounded by other people and even in the presence of family.

Olive is the most interesting character in the book, and the reader slowly learns more about her as the stories continue. Originally portrayed mostly as a bitch in the first story (which focuses on her kindly husband Henry), she quickly becomes more nuanced. She often is a bitch, but she also deeply cares about the students she has worked with over the years and almost intuitively is aware of the deep sorrow in others. She is often unable to make relationships with other people, except those in crisis, because (even against her better judgment) she condemns and dismisses them as "stupid" and irritating. Her only son (who also appears cold and uncaring in early stories) hates her because of her attitude. Although Olive is devoted to him, she is unable to express that love in a productive way and fails to secure a loving relationship with him.

I'm significantly younger than Olive, but I did occasionally see some of myself in her: dismissing other people, failing to put effort into relationships, taking for granted the love I do receive. It's not something I intentionally do, yet I know I too can come off as cold and stiff. There's no overarching message in Olive Kitteridge to take solace in (nor even a story of hope, which Lahiri at least provided), so I felt rather saddened by its stories.

Olive Kitteridge is the newest Pulitzer Prize winner, and I was pleased to find a book that was rich and compelling, even if it wasn't uplifting.

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