I picked up another one that’s been on my shelf a while… (Are you sensing a trend? There is a reason; more later) …Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer winner Oliver Kitteridge. Despite the notoriety of this book, I really didn’t have much idea of what it was about. All I knew was that my mother-in-law “couldn’t get into it,” which probably contributed to why it sat on my shelf unread for so long.
Olive Kitteridge is more of a collection of stories that are tied together by, yes, a woman named Olive Kitteridge. The setting is a small town in rural Maine, the kind of town where everyone not only knows each other but knows each other’s business. While some of the stories focus on Olive and her life with husband Henry and grown son Chris, many of them feature other members of the town, and Olive is just a small background character.
The first is Denise, a meek sort of plain-Jane assistant at Henry’s pharmacy. He’s taken with her in a protective sort of way, but Olive just finds her insufferably naive and boring. Another is Angie O’Meara, an alcoholic lounge performer who seems trapped by her past relationships. Then there’s Harmon, the owner of the hardware store who is having an affair with a woman that accompanies Henry Kitteridge to church (because his wife refuses), because his own wife Bonnie has gotten rather cold and indifferent in the marriage.
These stories introduce you to a number of characters, and that’s what these people are—characters. It’s a wonderful look at the overlapping lives of neighbors and the intimate details probably unseen by one another. Olive is the stand-out character—if that wasn’t going to be apparently with the title—and she’s an odd one. She’s prickly and a little ornery and very set in her ways, but she’s also got this sympathetic side that is revealed through her interactions with others, mostly her son Chris. You realize she can read other people well but is lost when it comes to herself, like one of those people that can’t seem to take their own good advice.
This isn’t a plot-driven book, but it’s also not too “literary” to feel intimidating. Mostly, it feels honest. And if nothing else, it’s got that Pulitzer Prize stamp on the cover, so you can participate and contribute to culturally astute literary conversation once you’ve read it.