Elizabeth Strout, who spent much of her childhood and young adulthood in Maine, set Abide with Me ( Selection July/Aug 2006) and Amy and Isabelle (2000) there; here, she offers a collective portrait of small-town Maine life.
The Story: Olive Kitteridge, a retired seventh grade math teacher and pharmacist’s wife, is quick, sharp, big, gossipy, and not an easy force to reckon with. In 13 short stories set in Crosby, a small, fictional town in Maine, Olive crosses paths with ordinary Mainers—or at least has walk-on parts in stories featuring them. In "A Little Burst," Olive plays a trick on her son’s wedding day; she later visits him and his family in New York. In "Incoming Tide," Olive sees one of her former students in a car—and decides to intervene in what she understands to be a problematic situation. Olive’s relationship with her kind, suffering husband takes center stage as both age and experience love, loss, betrayal, and, above all, flashes of empathy toward their very small-town neighbors.
Random House. 288 pages. $25. ISBN: 140006208X
Seattle Post Intelligencer
"Strout’s greatest strength is her ability to depict the innermost thoughts of varied characters across several generations, from schoolchildren to the elderly. Almost all of these disparate folks are captured with humanity, empathy and economy." John Marshall
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[‘Pharmacy’ and ‘Incoming Tide’] are so good—the balance of their ache placed so precisely—that I found myself trembling. The remaining tales aren’t quite at that level, but you won’t catch me complaining." Karen Long
NY Times Book Review
"By its very structure, sliding in and out of different tales and different perspectives, it illuminates both what people understand about others and what they understand about themselves. … The pleasure in reading Olive Kitteridge comes from an intense identification with complicated, not always admirable, characters." Louisa Thomas
"Strout’s true gift, though, is describing life’s finer details; the normal, everyday things that might otherwise be overlooked—the bad breath of Olive’s denture-wearing friend or how Olive always feeds her dog Dunkin’ Donut holes. … Strout’s style is as clean and polished as the inside of an oyster shell; flip that shell over, though, and it’s layered and gritty." Nicole Chvatal
"Elizabeth Strout has drawn an indelible portrait of a difficult woman whose life is fraught with disappointment, some of it self-inflicted. Despite all, she can penetrate the hearts and souls of others, bringing sweet relief and comfort to those who despair of their own lives." Valerie Ryan
Wall Street Journal
"[Olive Kitteridge is] a thoughtful, compelling collection likely to reward those who seek it out. … Ms. Strout shines a harsh light on these provincial lives, and at times it’s difficult not to squirm as we view the misery of others." Kate LaVoie
Critics generally raved about this novel-within-stories—a 21st-century version of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, claimed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but with constantly evolving characters. Indeed, these men, women, teenagers, and children—not always upstanding, and often lonely and scared—elicited the highest praise from reviewers. Olive in particular captured critics’ hearts, her flaws more than offset by her flashes of compassion. Brilliant dialogue, beautiful language, and an eye for the fine details of life round out the stories. Reviewers cited "Pharmacy" and "Incoming Tide" as two of the best, but they commented that when Olive isn’t on the page, the stories feel empty. While Strout deftly captures the spirit of small-town life, Olive Kitteridge—in its exploration of family dynamics, loneliness, infidelity, and grief—is a far cry from a provincial book.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. Do you like Olive Kitteridge as a person?
2. Have you ever met anyone like Olive Kitteridge, and if so, what similarities do you see between that person and Olive?
3. How would you say Olive changed as a person during the course of the book?
4. Discuss the theme of suicide. Which characters are most affected (or fascinated) by the idea of killing themselves?
5. What freedoms do the residents of Crosby, Maine, experience in contrast with those who ?ee the town for bigger “ponds” (California, New York)? Does anyone feel trapped in Crosby, and if so, who? What outlets for escape are available to them?
6. Why does Henry tolerate Olive as much as he does, catering to her, agreeing with her, staying even-keeled when she rants and raves? Is there anyone that you tolerate despite their sometimes overbearing behavior? If so, why?
7. How does Kevin (in “Incoming Tide”) typify a child craving his father’s approval? Are his behaviors and mannerisms any way like those of Christopher Kitteridge? Do you think Olive reminds Kevin more of his mother or of his father?
8. In “A Little Burst,” why do you think Olive is so keen on having a positive relationship with Suzanne, whom she obviously dislikes? How is this a re?ection of how she treats other people in town?
9. Does it seem ?tting to you that Olive would not respond while others ridiculed her body and her choice of clothing at Christopher and Suzanne’s wedding?
10. How do you think Olive perceives boundaries and possessiveness, especially in regard to relationships?
11. Elizabeth Strout writes, “The appetites of the body were private battles” (“Starving,” page 89). In what ways is this true? Are there “appetites” that could be described as battles waged in public? Which ones, and why?
12. Why does Nina elicit such a strong reaction from Olive in “Starving”? What does Olive notice that moves her to tears in public? Why did witnessing this scene turn Harmon away from Bonnie?
13. In “A Different Road,” Strout writes about Olive and Henry: “No, they would never get over that night because they had said things that altered how they saw each other” (p. 124). What is it that Olive and Henry say to each other while being held hostage in the hospital bathroom that has this effect? Have you experienced a moment like this in one of your close relationships?
14. In “Tulips” and in “Basket of Trips,” Olive visits people in dif?cult circumstances (Henry in the convalescent home, and Marlene Bonney at her husband’s funeral) in hopes that “in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement” (p. 172). In what ways do the tragedies of others shine light on Olive’s trials with Christopher’s departure and Henry’s illness? How do those experiences change Olive’s interactions with others? Is she more compassionate or more indifferent? Is she more approachable or more guarded? Is she more hopeful or more pessimistic?
15. In “Ship in a Bottle,” Julie is jilted by her ?ancé, Bruce, on her wedding day. Julie’s mother, Anita, furious at Bruce’s betrayal, shoots at him soon after. Julie quotes Olive Kitteridge as having told her seventh-grade class, “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else” (p. 195). What do you think Olive means by this phrase? How does Olive’s life re?ect this idea? Who is afraid of his or her hunger in these stories?
16. In “Security,” do you get the impression that Olive likes Ann, Christopher’s new wife? Why does she excuse Ann’s smoking and drinking while pregnant with Christopher’s ?rst child (and Henry’s ?rst grandchild)? Why does she seem so accepting initially, and what makes her less so as the story goes on?
17. Was Christopher justi?ed in his ?ght with Olive in “Security”? Did he kick her out, or did she voluntarily leave? Do you think he and Ann are cruel to Olive?
18. Do you think Olive is really oblivious to how others see her– especially Christopher? Do you think she found Christopher’s accusations in “Security” shocking or just unexpected?
19. What’s happened to Rebecca at the end of “Criminal”? Where do you think she goes, and why do you think she feels compelled to go? Do you think she’s satis?ed with her life with David? What do you think are the reasons she can’t hold down a job?
20. What elements of Olive’s personality are revealed in her relationship with Jack Kennison in “River”? How does their interaction re?ect changes in her perspective on her son? On the way she treated Henry? On the way she sees the world?