Wednesday, August 19, 2009


In a tiny seaside town in New England, neighbors and strangers go about their daily lives, facing the everyday dramas of dulling marriages, secret love affairs, difficult parents, difficult children, loneliness, old age, and even some more dramatic challenges: anorexia, hostage situations, suicide attempts, shoplifting, hunting accidents. Through all these associated short stories--each one of which is quiet but powerful, and each of which successfully stands alone--one character recurs: Olive Kitteridge, formidable town English teacher. Many stories are about Olive herself, but even in only the tangentally related stories she's bound to make an appearance at a piano bar or pass through a restraunt foyer.

While the book is fairly quiet, the strength lies in the careful detailing of the changes as characters move from middle age to age, which is one of the most provocative themes throughout. Olive herself is a "crusty" Down East type, and one that reminded me at many turns of my own New England schoolteacher mother, to whom I have now given my copy, which she is (reportedly) greatly enjoying.

Elizabeth Strout--I discovered, after much careful perusal of the needlepoint font on the copyright page--wrote these various stories over the past 20 years. The earliest story in the collection was published in 1990, and others have been published in other magazines since. It amazes me that she stuck with her town and a loose cast of characters through all those years--perhaps that is why the short stories are as finely tuned and convincing as they are.

I liked this book a lot, and recommend it as a satisfying read. For a short story collection, there was remarkable forward propulsion, and I was eager to keep reading (they way I would feel about a novel). I also think that perhaps I wasn't the target demographic--my mother, I think, is--and yet I enjoyed it very much.


sandralambert said...

So. Moonrat. You wouldn't call this a novel? A novel in stories? To me, these pearls-on-a-string come together into a novel. Why. Ummm. Maybe because they are all facets of one location and one emotional story that builds over the course of the book. (Also, in the interest of complete disclosure, the structure is similar to a novel that I'm shopping around)

I guess I am also part of the "target audience" (ie, going from middle-aged to aged), and let me tell you how lovely it is to read such a beautifully crafted work with fully-living characters that are my age.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I read this book after it first came out and loved it--how we get so many views of Olive, how it is interest in her character that drives the book forward, that the focus is on daily life.

Sandra, I would go with the novel-in-stories category. It is definitely more than just "stories" for all the reasons you point out.

Thanks for the review, Moonrat. You might be interested in another more in-depth review of Olive Kitteridge at

moonrat said...

Hey, thanks for commenting, guys!

Sandra--yeah, for me it wasn't a novel. There are actually inconsistencies (tiny ones, but still; I wish I'd written them down) among the stories, which I TOTALLY forgave because they were stories; I didn't mind how they linked or didn't.

But also, to the point about age, *I* agree myself--it was nice to read about a heroine who was not a) 17, or b) 34. And Olive's exploits are so richly drawn, kind of accumulative.

Cynthia--I'll go check out the review right now.

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

I read about this book and was thinking about picking it up. I'm going to do it now. Thanks so much for the great review!

angelle said...

okay i just finished it. i LOVED it. like lots-of-tiny-hearts-around-olive's-name loved it. it was so incredibly moving and i think it surpasses unaccustomed earth as my favorite read of the year so far.