Book review: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout


We were going to be visiting Scott’s family in Maine and I’d never been there before, so I wanted to read something that was set in that state; Scott did a bit of research and suggested Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Extra points for a Maine novel written by a Maine author!

This book reminded me of:

I kept thinking back to Anne Tyler (Ladder of Years especially, not that I can remember a single detail other than how the book made me feel) and Alice Munro’s Still Life in terms of the female character’s experiences. Alice Munro again because the novel is a collection of short stories that could very well stand on their own. And Wendell Berry because of Strout’s choice to illuminate one small town through the eyes of several very different inhabitants and their very different stories… though to be fair, I think Strout covers a lot more ground in terms of humanizing a wider range of characters and situations.

This book got me thinking about:

…the many different ways aging relationships can go.
Apparently I had unconsciously assumed a very narrow spectrum of feelings and/or options available to people that had been in a relationship for decades, because I was very pleasantly surprised by the number of representations in this book.

…the fraught nature of parent/child relationships.
So many of the characters and scenarios reminded me of just-slightly-more-extreme versions of people and relationships in my own life, and that’s all I’ll say about that! I also found myself recommending this book several times during the family reunion after someone or other complained about this or that family member in pretty much exactly the same way as the dynamics were covered in the book. Entertaining, sure, but this also reveals how effectively Strout observes and reflects back familial issues.

…the ubiquity, range, and loneliness of mental health challenges.
The book’s characters experience (directly and indirectly) the impacts of depression, suicide, eating disorders, therapy, mental decline due to aging, generational trauma. I was surprised by and appreciated Strout’s candid, unsentimental approach to all of the above.

…post 9/11 racism.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a person of color living in Maine today, much less in the aughts (Olive Kitteridge was published in 2008). It didn’t come up much but there is something more subtle going on here as well, and I’m not sure what else to say other than that I was definitely ready to read something written by and featuring more people of color after this one. Granted, I did go for a book set in Maine, the second whitest state in the U.S. after Vermont :-/

Other unsolicited thoughts:

Because I haven’t seen the Olive Kitteridge HBO series I am a terrible person to weigh in on this, and yet here I go: I have mixed feelings about Frances McDormand playing Olive. She seems like a good pick in terms of Olive’s character, but her imposing size is mentioned so frequently in the book that I was definitely imagining someone a lot heavier.

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