BOOK GROUPIE: Find yourself in Elizabeth Strout’s 'Olive'

November 13, 2009

If you pick up a book titled “Olive Kitteridge,” you would expect the book to be about a character with that name, right? But Elizabeth Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner is about much more than Olive; it’s about all of us.

“Olive Kitteridge” reads like a series of short stories. The book holds 13 masterfully written narratives, mostly set in the small town of Crosby, Maine. The stories explore the tragedies and joys of Crosby’s inhabitants, including births, deaths, crimes and love affairs. Linking every story is the presence — albeit sometimes very slight — of Olive Kitteridge.

Olive Kitteridge is a crotchety old middle-school teacher when the book begins. She is abrupt and rude, with opinions as tall and strong as her mannish stature. She has a soft spot for her only child, a quiet son named Christopher, but is usually impatient and unkind to everyone else, including her husband, Henry.

But through the course of the book, readers learn that Olive is not the steel wall so many of the book’s characters see her as. Olive is pained when overhearing Christopher’s wife making fun of her dress, she loses her cool when exposed to a serious crime, and she pines when Henry is faced with difficult medical issues. In other words, Olive feels real to readers. In fact, Elizabeth Strout has said that Olive is “a little bit of each of us” and I think that’s true.

Interestingly, I doubt Olive is the favorite character for many readers of this book. I picture local book club members debating the charm of numerous characters and stories in the book, and I see readers discussing the degree to which each of the 13 stories affected them.

 Because “Olive Kitteridge” is a book that lends itself to debate and discussion, it’s the perfect book club read.

As for me, my favorite story is “Security.” The story takes Olive out of her Crosby comfort zone and into New York City. Olive is invited to New York by Christopher. Initially, Olive is hopeful about visiting Christopher, the boy who shook off Olive’s capricious moods all his life. But when Olive arrives, she discovers Christopher’s been to therapy and won’t take abuse anymore.

Can Olive handle her son’s newfound resolve? You’ll have to read the book to find out. In the process, you won’t just learn about Olive Kitteridge, but perhaps a bit about each of us.

CONTACT THE WRITER: Anita Miller welcomes your book suggestions. Read her blog at
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