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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, a collection of linked short stories, is the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  In its citation, the Pulitzer committee noted the stories pack “a cumulative emotional wallop, bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating.”

The story begins with Henry Kitteridge, Olive’s husband. He is the pharmacist in the small town of Crosby, Maine. Could be Parry Sound, Ontario. There are the year round residents, and the summer people – and some transplanted city folk.

This is a community of mostly nice ordinary decent people making their way in the world. But, as we all know, things happen in people’s lives. As lives intersect in all sorts of interesting ways, interesting stories emerge.

Olive Kitteridge is a grade seven teacher at the local school; most everyone has passed through her class. She is a strict, no-nonsense teacher. She is the same at home with Henry and their son, Christopher. Olive is a big woman, she seems to be lacking in compassion, and is perhaps down right unfriendly, she does not suffer fools. Underneath that exterior Olive is a turmoil. She occasionally finds that she is able, with the right person at the right time, to show that she does have a kind heart full of love.

When a neighbour suffers the death of her husband, it is Olive she is able to talk to – knowing that Olive will understand, and not respond with empty words of comfort. The grieving widow describes the days before her husband’s death, when they sat together planning trips they knew they would never be able to take.

Henry is a lovely man, and although it appears that Olive may not appreciate his many qualities, they both know that they would be lost without each other. They are also held together with mutual love for their son. When she visits her adult son in New York City, Olive “had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world is working to get what they needed. For most it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did.”  Olive knows she must allow Christopher to detach himself from his mother’s control, and that she must accept his marriage.

And even Olive, as she ages, mellows somewhat. Olive who has seemed, always, to be able to accept the inevitable, no matter how tragic, now realizes that when love comes, it must not be tossed aside carelessly. Nor should this delightful book.

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