Book review: Olive Kitteridge

cover of "Olive Kitteridge" with photo of author Elizabeth Strout

There is a phrase my friend and writing mentor Brenda often uses to describe the totality of what we are, and why we repel each other, and of course why we find each other so compelling: "messy humans."

It is a phrase I like because the words themselves taste like the phenomenon they describe: a scrambly tumble of emotions, quirks, fine and dreadful impulses, noble and heinous actions all swooped up and barely contained in these bags of bone and flesh and nerves we call bodies. Messy humans we are, even if we look orderly on the outside.

The humans who populate Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's novel-as-collection-of-stories set in small-town Maine, are as messy as anyone, though like most everyone, they do their best to hide it. For the most part, they live quietly and drink privately, literally in some cases, figuratively in others. The drug of choice varies, but there is always something people reach for to quiet the rages, fill the emptiness, plug up the holes that would otherwise let out the crazy. They turn to gossip or silence, food or self-denial, dreams or ritual, usually, some cobbled-together collection of these.

Still, the mess will out; it always does. Everyone has hunger, as Olive points out to a girl who starves herself to stave off her own. Everyone is crazy and messy and, most of the time, barely holding it together while simultaneously doing their best. And in the end (and the end of Olive Kitteridge is both shocking and comforting at once), that is the truth: that we are more alike than different, that each of us is doing our best to reconcile our personal mess with the chaos we are confronted with daily.

If you like your narratives with a strong sense of place, revealing character without underlining it, quietly letting the whole shape of the protagonist reveal itself through actions both direct and reflected, you will love Olive Kitteridge.

You may even find yourself loving Olive Kitteridge herself, difficult, obstinate, outspoken, complicated, simple, gracefully ungainly, wise, short-sighted, hungry Olive Kitteridge, who makes us wince alternately with loving tenderness and a kind of dread at her clumsy, overt humanity. And if we can love Olive, who is so grossly and messily human, maybe we can begin to love ourselves a little bit, too.

Cover design: Robbin Schiff; Cover photo © Laura Hanifin; Photo of Elizabeth Strout © Jerry Bauer.

Legalese, etc! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links: if you click on them and buy something, I get Amazon dollars. Which is great, as it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.