Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, tells the story of a strange and difficult woman from a quiet, cloistered community in Maine. The novel toggles back and forth from Olive’s own life to the lives of those around her–all the way from her husband to one of Olive’s former students whose memory of Mrs. Kitteridge is passing and peripheral.
Olive herself is a deeply emotional person, filled with hopes, passions, and fears. Her insecurities often manifest in explosive ways, appearing to others like anger or even cruelty. Many of the people in her life fear or resent her because of her harsh judgments, yet there are others to whom Olive is the hand of salvation, a rescuing angel… though perhaps a rather abrasive one.
At times, Strout’s novel appears to leave Olive for good and focus entirely on distant characters who make up Olive’s community, as if Strout has forgotten who her novel is really about. Though she does always return to her main character eventually, even Olive’s story seems wandering and unfocused. Olive’s life has no overarching purpose, no inspiring redemption, no grand moral. It is simply life, forceful and unashamed.
The authenticity of Strout’s characters and their individual stories imbues it with a freshness that is appealing, but little else of the book is praiseworthy. I found myself bored, hour after hour, waiting for something to happen.
Nothing ever did.
While Strout captures numerous emotions and experiences on the page with startling clarity, those emotions and experiences are the stuff of common, everyday life. There was nothing that elevated the story above a mere narration of one woman’s existence.
Revealing Olive’s life through the way she affected those around her could have been astounding. However, Strout left Olive for painfully long stretches, getting lost in the meaningless stories of unimportant figures whose appearances never made sense. This pattern created a disjointed reading experience, and left me wondering what purpose Strout could have had in writing those characters.
Despite my lack of interest in Olive Kitteridge, the Pulitzer Prize accolade kept me trudging through to the end, when I otherwise would have closed the book for good. Unfortunately, I never understood what was so prize-worthy about this story, and I can’t recommend it to others.