I picked this one up because it was on the Barnes and Noble “Buy Two, Get One Free” table and I needed a third. I thought I had read Amy and Isabelle and liked it, so I figured I’d test Strout out again.
Olive Kitteridge has a very interesting structure. Everything takes place in a fairly small town in Maine and each chapter is told from a different resident’s point of view with Olive connecting the stories and characters together. Olive herself gets more than one chapter of her own, but she always passes through the other chapters. Sometimes it might be one sentence, other times she is a major character, and in other stories she’s there long enough for the person telling the story to reflect on. I found myself looking forward to spotting her, especially when I saw that she wasn’t going to play a major role in the story.
Another thing that I looked forward to was seeing what version of Olive would appear. Just as in real life, she’s a different person depending on who is thinking of her. Some people saw her as a horror. Others depend on her for help. Some think she’s a saint. Others want her to feel miserable. And of course Olive herself has her own version of who she is.
Each story adds a different layer and as I finished the book I wanted to piece everything together to try and define a solid personality for her. One of the things that made this work and interested me was Olive’s own chapters. She sees herself in a very specific way (as we all do for ourselves), and holding up her version with the other townsfolk was something I enjoyed. The first chapter is her husband’s and I did not like her at all. I was worried I wasn’t going to like the book because she was so difficult. But then in other chapters I saw her as an extremely capable person who knew without any qualms what to do and who should do it. In her own chapters there were moments of insight and glimpses at her regrets. I liked how putting everything together didn’t make a perfect and finished puzzle. Some people snapped into place easily while others were like jamming two pieces together that were not meant to fit.
I really enjoyed the final chapters because Olive is in her seventies and we’ve seen snapshots of her at different ages. She’s still steadfast in who she is and irritated by the social norms that people insist on following, but she has moments that make her pause and wonder if she really was right all of the time. She’s never apologized for anything in her life, but now that her journey is coming to an end, she has to wonder if she did right by people. This is not some explosive moment that sends her out into the world to make amends. She remains stoic and continues to be irritated by niceties and platitudes, but she does have small moments of reflection. I was very pleased that Strout didn’t make her into a softer version and change her personality. Olive is not one to change, or even really reflect. When she does remain in these moments (and they aren’t always quiet ones) she’s able to analyze and judge just as she always has, but she’s also able to let the idea that other people might disagree with her be a valid option.
I enjoyed the book and found myself wondering which version of Olive I would have known. I think I would not have liked her, but I wonder if I would have flat out hated her.
The most difficult thing about this book was that I started it and then switched to The Casual Vacancy and I’ve gotten the two incredibly confused. I’ve forgotten which story is in which book since The Casual Vacancy is also told from different points of view. As I wrote this review I often had to flip back through the book to confirm that yes, this did happen in this Maine town and not somewhere in Britain.