Literary Criticism and Significance

Because Olive Kitteridge (2008) was published recently, there has been relatively little time for substantial criticism to appear about the work. Although it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009, thus far Olive Kitteridge has primarily been discussed in book reviews rather than in extended academic essays. Most reviews praise the book for the same qualities the Pulitzer Prize Board did: for the prose, the emotional power (which builds throughout the collection), and the complexity of Olive Kitteridge herself.

In one of the more substantial reviews of the book, Yvonne Zipp calls Olive "a prickly protagonist with a tender heart" and says that Strout makes a reader feel "protective, even tender, toward Olive—despite her prickliness." This is all done, Zipp argues, in a collection where each story "serves as an individual microcosm of small-town life." Though others mention the setting, especially the small-town nature of the stories, Louisa Thomas, reviewing the book for the New York Times, gives the setting the most emphasis, saying that it is a "quintessentially New England town." In this, Thomas gestures toward an element of Olive's character that Strout herself underscored in an interview: Olive (like Strout) is a product of Maine and could not have been who she was anywhere else—could not even be in the Midwest, Strout said.

That specificity noted, the importance of Olive Kitteridge and of the book bearing her name lies in the universal complexity of her character. Even in literary fiction, readers too often encounter overly simplified characters, whose motives can be summed up easily and who exist independently in ways people never do in real life. Single dramatic events happen, and these characters change with amazing ease, or act in ways that display their inner secrets. That is not real—and that is not Olive.

Instead, Olive moves through the book's thirteen stories with her inner life never really in sync with her outer life. Pain lingers, healing comes slowly, and understanding may only ever be partial. Olive loves, and even burns with desire—but her life is never easy, and nothing flows except with difficulty. Prickly and willful as she is, Olive is everywhere shaped by her family, her relationships, and her context. Olive lives in a world like ours, where events happen, and we can tell their importance...but not necessarily their meaning. She is not a comfortable character, and it is definitely possible to dislike her, as some readers have. But Olive has a psychological weight to her that is almost metaphysical. Olive is real, and Olive endures, like the sea near the town of Crosby, Maine.