Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the most confusing book review I’ve ever written.

Let me start by saying that I take the Goodreads rating system literally. If you hover your little mouse over the stars, it gives you the key. One star = did not like it. Two stars = it was ok. Three stars = I liked it. Four stars = I really liked it. Five stars = It was amazing.

I’ve heard people say things like, “I have to really hate a book to give it less than three stars,” and, “You only gave it three stars? Oh, I liked it.” These things confuse me. If I give a book three stars, then I liked it, plain and simple. My four and five star books have to earn their status.

But today, I’m having trouble with the star system, because I did not “like” Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Olive Kitteridge. I did not enjoy it. It did not make me happy. But it was an extremely well-written novel that provoked many emotions in me, and for that I commend Strout. If I could simultaneously give it 4 ½ stars for quality and 1 ½ stars for enjoyment, I would. Lacking that type of complicated system, I gave it a three.

Warning: A few small spoilers beyond this point.

Olive Kitteridge is a very depressing book. The story weighs heavy on my mind and my heart. I am certain that if I’d read it ten years ago (yes, I realize it wasn’t written then) I wouldn’t have made it past the point in the very first story where the young grieving widow accidentally runs over her new kitten. I’m not a fan of stories in which animals die; in fact, I avoid almost any book with a cat or a dog on the cover for that very reason.

I did make it past the poor kitten’s death (I guess I’m older and wiser and maybe my heart has toughened a bit), but I’m quite sure that if I’d been reading the print version of this novel, rather than listening to the audio book, I would’ve had to put it down somewhere around “A Little Burst” and read something else for awhile. There’s a good chance the break might have been permanent. But by listening to the stories with one ear while running errands, I was able to continue. (It also helped that when I got home I could read a happier book. If you’re going to start Olive Kitteridge, I recommend reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion simultaneously for emotional balance.)

Although the audio version of the book undoubtedly took some of the sting out of some of the stories (it’s hard to cry about a woman’s loneliness in the wake of her husband’s stroke while driving beneath a blue sky past fields of wildflowers), I still almost turned the thing off when I finished “Security.” The end of that story—the inability of a mother and her son to properly communicate, the upset that resulted, the way they left things—just broke my heart.

Heartbreak, though, is a powerful emotion; my need to punch my car stereo’s off button is evidence of Strout’s excellent writing. She gives life to every single character, paints a vivid picture of a small Maine town through snippets weaved through a dozen tales, and tackles the complexity of the human spirit with absolute fearlessness. For that, she deserves her prizes.

The thing is, in the end, I still enjoy a story with a little more light in it. A little more joy, a little more hope, a little more humor. If a a book is going to reduce me to tears, I want it to be done delicately, with the poetry of The Book Thief or the passion of The Fault in Our Stars. So I can’t, in good conscience, recommend Olive Kitteridge. It was good, but I didn’t like it.

A few final thoughts on Olive herself:

* I did not dislike Olive at any part of the book. Yes, she was moody and had a callous way of speaking and could be extremely stubborn. I’m not saying the woman had no faults; she had many. But I didn’t dislike her for them. Before reading the book, I heard from friends and strangers on Goodreads that the main character was not a likable person. For that reason alone, I feel a great sympathy for Olive. In some ways, she reminds me of myself. In my opinion, she’s got enough problems in her (fictional) life without having her readers judge her so harshly.

* One of the things that I loved about Olive was her relationship with her dog. The dog, as far as I can remember, was never given a name or a breed or even a color, but he was there, riding around in her car, shedding hair everywhere, sharing her donut holes, licking Henry’s hand in the nursing home. It would not be unusual for a woman as fastidious as Olive, who has such little patience for small children and such strong opinions about others’ homes, to also lack affection for pets. But there’s the dog, always with her, obviously loved. I’ve already mentioned my aversion to books where the pets die, so when this depressing novel introduced a beloved dog to the lonely old main character, I braced myself for its inevitable demise, expecting that the death, when it came, would be horrible. I waited and I waited and I wondered and I hypothesized, and what does Strout do? She never kills off the dog! Multiple deaths and funerals and suicides and emotional casualties in this book, but the damn dog lives. Rather than seeing this as a mercy on the part of the author, I instead view it as a new and unique form of torture.

* It is not fair for a book to mention donuts as much as this one did. I blame Olive Kitteridge for any weight I gained in the past two weeks.

[NOTE TO LOCAL READERS: Elizabeth Strout is coming to Book People this week! Tuesday, April 15th, 7pm. Click here for details.]

View all my reviews

Published by Carie Juettner

Carie Juettner is a former middle school teacher and the author of The Ghostly Tales of New England, The Ghostly Tales of Austin, The Ghostly Tales of Burlington, and The Ghostly Tales of Dallas in the Spooky America series by Arcadia Publishing. Her poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as The Twin Bill, Nature Futures, and Daily Science Fiction. Carie lives in Richardson, Texas, with her husband and pets. She was born on Halloween, and her favorite color is purple.

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