Wednesday, January 6, 2010

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Each chapter in this book is a vignette about a different person or family in a small coastal Maine town. Olive Kitteridge is the larger-than-life constant thread through all of them, although sometimes tangentially. Through her interactions with other members of the community, we gradually get a clear picture of who she is. She is a bulky math teacher, feared by her students and kept at arms-length by her grown son. She's also blunt, opinionated, unapologetic and sometimes given to eruptions of anger. I loved her straightforwardness and her acceptance that life isn't fair. She also has moments of great compassion, comforting former students, one contemplating suicide and another ruled by anorexia. Like all the characters in the book, Olive is multifaceted—neither completely good nor completely evil but some of both. The book also has several laugh-out-loud moments. One of my favorites is when she absconds with one of her bossy daughter-in-law's shoes. Olive is also a vehement Bush-hater and lets loose a hilarious tirade on a Republican suitor. The book is full of heartbreaks of just about every variety as well—a cheating spouse, death of a loved one, wayward offspring, a canceled wedding. What I didn't like was that starting a new chapter was like starting a new book with a new set of characters. I kept wanting to go back to the previous set of characters and find out what happened. The author leaves a lot of loose ends dangling, but at least we know Olive's story.

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