Readers may well have come to Olive Kitteridge with high expectations, for Elizabeth Strout's earlier works had both garnered critical attention and success in the marketplace. Her 1999 novel Amy and Isabelle won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. Her novel Abide With Me (2006) was a best-selling work.
Olive Kitteridge, the 2008 "novel in stories" by Elizabeth Stout, did not disappoint. It won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and is a rich and highly nuanced reading experience that shines a light on American life. Several elements make Olive Kitteridge worthy of the reader's notice, and most of them relate in some way to the title character.
Olive Kitteridge is rare in literature in her complexity, the clumsiness of her outsized emotions (which match her ungainly body well), and in Strout's willingness to make Olive often unlikable without making her a villain. Olive is exceptionally realistic, and presses on the reader's consciousness long after the book is finished. Olive Kitteridge is also uncommon in that the novel joins the flow of Olive's life in middle age and follows her into old age.
Olive appears in all thirteen stories in the book in a variety of ways. In stories "Little Burst" and "River," Olive is the main character— but in "Pharmacy," which opens the collection, she is more of a foil or secondary character, while in stories like "Winter Concert" Olive is literally a passerby. This gives the collection both structural and thematic complexity, for even in the stories where Olive is present for only a page, the emotions that play out in them resonate with Olive's life, which will take center stage again in the next story.
As a result, Olive becomes the symbolic heart of her small town Maine community, giving meaning to it even when she is unacknowledged and invisible. The quality of Strout's prose is essential to Olive Kitteridge's precise power. Strout deftly sums up complex characters in small details.
Olive Kitteridge is a collection of thirteen short stories, essentially a "novel in stories," linked by the character Olive Kitteridge. What makes Olive striking is the variation in her roles throughout the book. In some of the stories, Olive is the main character. In others, Olive is only a supporting figure, a foil, or nothing more than a name mentioned in passing conversation—a theme or trope that links these stories set in and around the small town of Crosby, Maine.
The first story, "Pharmacy," focuses on Olive's husband, Henry Kitteridge, as he looks back from retirement age at what may have been the happiest year of his life. That year, his assistant at the pharmacy retired, and a new woman came to work there, a shy, college-educated young woman named Denise Thibodeau. Henry becomes very fond of Denise and her husband, Henry, and they and Jerry McCarthy, who makes deliveries to the pharmacy, become a kind of surrogate family to Henry Kitteridge, replacing the distance and tension he feels with Olive and their son, Christopher. Then Henry Thibodeau goes hunting with his best friend, Tony Kuzio, who accidentally shoots and kills him. Henry Kitteridge steps in to become even more of a father to Denise, teaching her to drive and helping her get back on her feet. She does, and eventually marries Jerry.
The second story, "Incoming Tide," is also marked by reflection on the past. Kevin Coulson has returned to Crosby for the first time since he was thirteen. His father had moved the family away after Kevin's mother had killed herself. Kevin is sitting in his car by the marina, watching the activity on the water and in the marina diner, where Patty Howe, a friend of Kevin's when they were both children, is waitressing. Olive Kitteridge, who had been Kevin's seventh-grade teacher, sees him and gets in his car. They sit and talk about the time since they had seen each other last, and about the suicides in their families (Olive's father killed...
(The entire section is 2,516 words.)