Olive Kitteridge by Elisabeth Strout has been showing as a mini series on Sky Atlantic. If you would like to read the book, we have a copy in stock. She has a new title The Burgess Boys, also in stock.
Here’s the New York Times review by Louisa Thomas from when it was first published in 2008.
“Elizabeth Strout brings to life a ‘hardscrabble community’ on the coast of Maine. One story takes place at the funeral reception of a man whose wife has just learned of his infidelity. Another features a hostage-taking in a hospital. Elsewhere, an old lover surprises a lounge pianist, sending her reeling back into painful memories. An overbearing mother visits her wary son and his boisterous, pregnant wife. Most stories turn on some kind of betrayal. A few document fragile, improbable romances. They encompass a wide range of experience.
The presence of Olive Kitteridge, a seventh-grade math teacher and the wife of a pharmacist, links these 13 stories. A big woman, she’s like a planetary body, exerting a strong gravitational pull. Several stories put Olive at the center, but in a few she makes only a fleeting appearance. It’s no coincidence that the two weakest stories are the ones in which she is merely mentioned. Without her, the book goes adrift, as if it has lost its anchor.
She isn’t a nice person. As one of the town’s older women notes, “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Olive’s son puts it more bluntly. “You can make people feel terrible,” he tells her. She dismisses others with words like “hellion” and “moron” and “flub-dub.” After swapping discontents, she says to a friend, “Always nice to hear other people’s problems.”
But as the stories continue, a more complicated portrait of the woman emerges. Olive may hurl invectives at her son, but she also loves him, almost more than she can bear. Her husband is a kind man and she loves him too, although she has trouble expressing it. She’s prone to “stormy moods,” as well as “sudden, deep laughter,” and she harbours a sense of compassion, even for strangers.
In one story, Olive bursts into tears when she meets an anorexic young woman. “I don’t know who you are,” she confesses, “but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.” “I’m starving, too,” Olive tells her. “Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?” “You’re not starving,” the girl replies, looking at this large woman, with her thick wrists and hands, her “big lap.” “Sure I am,” Olive says. “We all are.”
It takes extraordinary presumption to say this to a girl who is starving to death, but from Olive the remark seems well-earned. Because the main thing we learn about her is that she has a remarkable capacity for empathy, and it’s an empathy without sentimentality. She understands that life is lonely and unfair, that only the greatest luck will bring blessings like a long marriage and a quick death. She knows she’s been rotten; she has regrets. She understands people’s failings — and, ultimately, their frail hopes.
Just as Olive’s self-awareness and empathy develop over the course of the book, so does the reader’s. Strout’s prose is quickened by her use of the “free indirect” style, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. “The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor” is a narrative statement — but “ridiculous” is very much Olive Kitteridge’s word. Similarly, in a description of a pianist, the clucking of communal disapproval creeps in: “Her face revealed itself too clearly in a kind of simple expectancy no longer appropriate for a woman of her age.” These moments animate Strout’s prose in the same way that a forceful person alters the atmosphere in a room.
The pleasure in reading “Olive Kitteridge” comes from an intense identification with complicated, not always admirable, characters. And there are moments in which slipping into a character’s viewpoint seems to involve the revelation of an emotion more powerful and interesting than simple fellow feeling — a complex, sometimes dark, sometimes life-sustaining dependency on others. There’s nothing mawkish or cheap here. There’s simply the honest recognition that we need to try to understand people, even if we can’t stand them.”