For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 29, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
It is difficult to be around Olive Kitteridge, a retired 7th grade math teacher from a small coastal town in Maine, but more than that, it is difficult to be Olive Kitteridge. Olive is blunt, abrasive, cynical, and sometimes unkind; she is married to a man, the town pharmacist, who is very kind; and she has a son who tells her point blank that she hurts people with her sharpness. It would be easy to write off Olive as a wretched old witch, but Olive also volunteers at places like the Red Cross and a local museum, and she has flashes of insight and empathy even as she tells a friend how much she enjoys grousing about her miseries. Olive is not easy to dismiss though she is dismissive of others. Why is she this way? What makes a person with a solid marriage, a meaningful job, in a safe town, become bitter and so willing to spread her misery?
Oliver Kitteridge is told in short stories. While Olive is a participant in each of the thirteen stories, she’s not the lead in every one. Her presence, however, is the glue of the collection. She’s an enigma because she is not simple to define or understand. Reading about her attendance at a local funeral, a run-in with an anorexic young woman, a hospital visit that becomes traumatic, a tense visit between mother and daughter-in-law, all portray life in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. . Olive Kitteridge observes her fellow humans, and their large and small problems, with a sometimes unforgiving eye, but her brutal honesty also means she must acknowledge the promise within each person to touch and love his fellow man.
Why is Olive Kitteridge a good read for women? Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for this collection, which places the reader solidly in this town, among these townspeople. Olive is a woman of a certain age, to use a cliché, but she represents flaws and disappointments every person experiences. She is not good at handling her problems or holding her tongue, but that makes her human, so these stories reveal a person who is real and who seeks happiness even if she’s not sure how.