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Pulitzer Prize-winning novel forms complex view of titular character

Advertised as a book of short stories – 13 of them – Olive Kitteridge is actually separate chapters of a narrative in which each character comes at the reader with a very rounded point of view and a different set of circumstances, which are by no means sequential.

This unique way of putting stories together makes for a three-dimensional picture of the folks in Crosby, Maine, a town on the ocean. I’ve never read anything like it.

Olive Kittredge is a retired math teacher, and she is introduced in the second chapter, getting into the parked car of Kevin, who we met in the first chapter as a sullen teenager and is now about to become a psychiatrist. That first chapter is a sad one about his father, a married pharmacist now in love with his assistant, though he barely admits this to himself.

In the second story, he dies of cancer, and not long after that, his wife commits suicide. As Olive and Kevin talk, a waitress goes down to the oceanfront for a swim. A wind comes up and she is swept out.  Kevin dives in and manages to hold on to her until help arrives.

In the third, Angie, a pianist and  singer is in a bar playing when Simon, now much older, stops by, leading her to review her life. In a later chapter, someone calls her a crazy alcoholic. That’s what is so interesting about this format: her own lonely thoughts, and later a perspective from someone else.

Olive hates the prissy, critical, self-interested woman her son is marrying, and overhears herself and her clothes denigrated by her.

Not long after that, we watch her steal one shoe, one stocking and mark up a sweater of  her new daughter-in-law’s – pleased to think of the new bride’s perplexity at her losses, she dumps her thefts in a Dunkin’ Donuts trash can.

Soon the newlyweds decamp to California, leaving behind the  lovely house his parents had built for him. After a year or so in California, Christopher comes home briefly, telling his parents he has divorced his wife, though soon after, he leaves again.

Olive is a character in most of the stories that link people we have met in their own stories. Olive becomes a three-dimensional character as the stories progress – so outspoken about the situations she encounters she sometimes shocks her listeners.

This was the case in another story in which she and her husband are hustled into a room with others by would-be robbers attacking a hospital they have visited.

She has become so outspoken in her comments about various members of  the family her husband turns on her to say, “You’ve never apologized for anything!”

Their relationship changes then, and not long after, he has a stroke and thereafter resides in a nursing home until his death.

There are 13 stories in this remarkable book, all evidencing different interpretations of characters we have met – all affected by Olive Kitteridge, finally focusing on Olive herself and her feelings, including, even, a potential romance for her.

It is an ingeniously planned sequence of narratives – each story taking characters we have met to greater depths, often interacting with other characters we have met, while the plots keep giving us new insights.

There is a penned note in the front of the copy I read by a reader who wrote “sad, sad book.” Another reader wrote, “She reveals the many onion-like layers of interpersonal relations.”

It won the Pulitzer Prize for 2008.

Book info:
Olive Kitteridge
By  Elizabeth Strout
Random House, $25

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Posted by on June 13, 2013. Filed under Arts and Entertainment,Book Reviews,Columns,Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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