Small town life told in stories of family dynamics, gossip, grief

book-300x200“Olive Kitteridge” This book is called a novel in stories. The stories are strung together by Olive Kitteridge with the common thread of taking place in Crosby, Maine, a coastal town that’s quintessentially New England. The town can also be described as hardscrabble and may seem like nowhere perched on the edge of the continent as it is. Although not hanging on to the edge of the continent, there are numerous Mississippi towns we might describe as nowhere. Most of us can also think of a woman like Olive Kitteridge. The stories are about family dynamics, small town gossip and grief.

Olive Kitteridge is an unforgettable character — larger than life in more ways than one. At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, and sometimes in denial. She is a retired school Olive Kitteridge_rgbteacher who deplores the sad changes in her little town and the world at large. She doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; her own adult son who feels tyrannized by Olive’s irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

Sometimes Olive dismisses others by calling them hellion, moron and flub-dub. As her son said to her, “You make people feel terrible.” Nonetheless, Strout writes the book in a powerful, compassionate voice. As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her condition — its conflicts, tragedies and joys — and the endurance it requires.

Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for “Olive Kitteridge” and the book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book, “The Burgess Boys,” comes out this month.

“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout is published by Random House ($26, hardcover, $15 for paperback).

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