I recently read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, mainly because I was intrigued by the HBO miniseries that recently aired. I generally don’t allow myself to watch adaptations of books without reading the books first. (I feel like I got a lot more out of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie because of this.) Then, my sister recommended that I read it. Another thing about me is that if someone recommends me a book, I will read it. I may not read it right away, or even that year, but I will read it. So if you guys ever recommend me a book, don’t be surprised if I email you five years in the future to tell you my thoughts. You’ll be like, “I’m actually pretty over Jonathan Franzen,” but I’ll still have to tell you about it. Thankfully, because this book hit two of my reading triggers, being both an adaptation I wanted to see and having been recommended to me, I took the e-book out from the library pretty soon after the idea of reading it formed in my head.
Olive Kitteridge was a surprise to me. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it was not what I was expecting at all. It was funnier than I thought it would be, and the entire structure of the novel was strange. I hadn’t really heard anything about it before I read it except that it was about a grumpy lady. That was enough for me. I wasn’t aware, however, how the character Olive Kitteridge is often just a weaving secondary character in a series of short stories about a Maine town–no one seemed to mention this?! There are a few stories that seem like deep treks into the Kitteridge family, but some of the other stories are about, say, a student Olive Kitteridge used to have, or about the singer at the local bar. Olive Kitteridge makes only a brief appearance in the stories about the townspeople, sometimes just as a antidote the character in focus tells.
Which feels like a gimmick, doesn’t it? I hate those!
I think that this is where Olive Kitteridge both sets itself apart and falters. I say falters and not fails because overall I really enjoyed the novel, but I did feel there was a lot of excess in the form of unnecessary characters and plot lines. The stories in Olive Kitteridge I felt the strongest reaction to were the ones that focused on the Kitteridges. Which makes me wish Olive Kitteridge was just a straightforward novel about Olive Kitteridge–maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way.
That’s why I loved the miniseries: it took the small, interesting details from the stories of the townspeople and make them just that–small, interesting details in the background of the main story of the Kitteridges, and Olive, a character that came alive in the miniseries in a new way. (Frances McDormand, by the way, was excellent.)
I had a hard time fully connecting to Olive in the book. I found her character so interesting but hard to grasp: one minute she is pondering about how she hates interacting with people in her town, the next minute she is helping a random girl get help for an eating disorder. It seemed unbelievable. But she felt so real in the miniseries, like the kind of lady all towns know: she knows everyone’s business and even though she’s kind of a jerk she doesn’t judge as much as it seems she does. When she does act out, it is out of the deep hurt of not belonging. She is a deeply flawed and somewhat tragic character, but her weaknesses are just so real that it was sometimes hard to watch.
There’s a lot in this story, and I’m a bad book reviewer, so here is a list of THEMES:
-Small town life turning slightly less wholesome with the passing of time (this book will make you feel kind of sad about chain drugstores)
-Children who grow up to resent you!
-Aging and death!
-People from Maine are different from the rest of us!
-Probably the biggest: Human connection and how it is sometimes easier for some people than others, but sometimes the people who have trouble connecting are the ones who need it the most.
I feel kind of like a bad book lover for saying this, but if you must, you should watch the HBO miniseries even if you don’t get around to reading the book. Although I loved the miniseries because I had the background of the novel, the miniseries did a great job of cutting out the narrative fat of Olive Kitteridge, and leaving all the soul-shattering, beautiful, sad, wonderful characterization of the story.