Pass on the Olives

Review #21

Book: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Audience: G-U

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

Yet another G-U fiction book disappoints. Perhaps I should stay away from eponymous novels. In the last one I read (Stella Bain) I liked the character, but I had a few too many criticisms about plot and style to truly enjoy the book. This time I liked the style and had no real issues with plot, but I couldn’t bring myself to like Olive.

I suppose I have no one to blame but myself. The blurb warned that Olive was not particularly likeable, but hinted that she mellowed or somehow changed or was at least interesting, so I thought she would be worth a read. Not so much.

The novel is written as a series of vignettes about Olive and her small town. From multiple perspectives (a device of which I am rather fond) we learn that Olive was a middle-school math teacher—tough, strict, and a bit of a hard-ass with her students, her husband, her son, and for that matter just about everyone she meets. She suffers no fools and has absolute confidence that her ways and opinions are correct. Her indifference can border on the cruel, yet she is also capable of intense loyalty which can manifest itself in unexpected ways. Her passions (her loves as well as her dislikes) are always as fierce as her determination to never expose those passions. In short, she presents herself as a caricature—narrow, small-minded, rigid, unfeeling, and cold—when in fact she is far deeper and more complicated than anyone ever suspects.

I guess that is what is supposed to make her intriguing, and I will admit on some level I found her to be so. Yes, her later in life experiences show her to have indeed mellowed, but only new people in her life get to see the improved Olive. Her strained relationships with those she loves most remain static. I pitied her because who she is makes those dearest to her unaware of her feelings and therefore unable to return the love she desperately craves.

So, while Olive is a far more fascinating character than meets the eye, I still didn’t like her. She was not interesting enough to overcome my dislike, and I’d rather find something to admire in her rather than something to pity about her. Overall, this was a well-crafted book, but for me character trumps craft and this played out to be a rather weak hand.