Olive is a big woman… she is big boned, big faced… and a big presence in the lives that surrounds hers. A retired math teacher in Crosby Maine… Olive bowls people over like a bowling ball heading for a strike. She is abrupt, judgmental, and not the person you stop in announced for a chat or a cup of coffee.
Yet in this series of short stories by Elizabeth Strout, Olive plays a part in every one… sometimes large, and sometimes she is merely acknowledged by another character or by a hand wave…. and as the stories unfold around Olive’s home town…. we get a glimpse of who Olive may really be.
♦ ♦ ♦
Hmmmm…. I still find myself trying to sort out my thoughts about this book. I am not a fan of short stories. I prefer really digging in and getting to know characters and plot lines and the short snippets have never really done it for me. Yet, as part of a reading project with my book club, I hand-picked this title out of a list of book options.
I believe I chose it because something about the synopsis, and yes even a series of stories around one character intrigued me. It was like a puzzle I wanted to solve and envisioned that was what author Elizabeth Strout was going to do – create a series of story pieces that in the end were a whole. I have always been a fan of unique tales, original writing styles… I prefer the breaking of the molds….
As I read this book I found myself at first confused. The stories seemed choppy… little glimpses – but of what. A bit of Olive here…. a bit of Olive there…. many characters were introduced and in times it was their story that held the chapter, their tale of – well, tragic life mostly…. and yet, somewhere there was still Olive.
It took me more than a few chapters to get the flow of the book and even then…. I am not sure if I truly did or I just became used to the way this book was put together. What I felt we were seeing was not the whole story – and for that I give Elizabeth Strout much credit. I dislike a book that spells it out for me, preferring to have something to figure out while I read. I believe this was Elizabeth’s goal – to give the reader a glimpse – but left much to the imagination. Who was Olive – really? This complicated woman, this woman who for most of book I did not even really like…. but I did want to figure her out.
There are moments when Olive (with help from our author) speaks so beautifully – so deeply that I am left with words that I want to post somewhere as reminders…. one such phrase came out of the short story ‘Starving”:
When Olive is confronted with an anorexic girl, Nina, this conversation takes place:
Olive finished the donut, wiped the sugar from her fingers, sat back and said, “You’re starving.”
The girl didn’t move, only said, “Uh… duh.”
“I’m starving too,” Olive said. “Why do you think I eat everything in sight?”
“You’re not starving,” Nina says with disgust.
“Sure I am. We all are.”
“Wow,” Nina said, Heavy.”
Moments like that in the book caused me to see a bit behind their thin veil that covered the real Olive.
In the end… I can’t say I felt I really knew Olive Kitterling, but I think I had an idea. Elizabeth Strout does write a compelling story and I give her a ton of credit as while at times I found this book difficult to read and follow, I can imagine that writing such a multi layered book, folding one chapter into another had to be pretty complicated in itself and Elizabeth Strout does a fine job doing so in a writing style that gave me pause – in a good, thought-provoking way.
*If you read this book – do make time to read the interview in the back of the book with Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge. It is hilarious and I think it will give you some additional insight to Olive.
As I mentioned before – this was a bonus review for my book club and it was to be centered around the food that makes up this book. Let me just say – if you are going to do a potluck around the food in a book – this one would be an excellent choice… the book is literally filled with food… my group came up with: Beef stew, hot bread, olive cheeseballs, funeral meatballs, seafood stuffed mushrooms (the ones Olive gets sick on in the book), homemade butterscotch sauce (where Olive winds up getting all over her towards the end of the book), carrot soup and a lovely red wine)
Our thoughts on the book were that Olive was a hard woman who seemed to keep a wall of protection around herself as some people tend to do when they don’t want people to see them too closely. This led to a good discussion of people like that in our own lives and how we handle them. We all felt that author Elizabeth Strout did a good job of giving us clues to Olive without spelling it out for us… we were left to come up with our own opinion of who this woman was.
Overall we came up with a slightly below average rating for the book. We found this book to be more work than entertaining to read. While we appreciated the good writing, we really never found a true connection to Olive.
For those that wish… I am posting a few of our recipes from last night that were wonderful compliments to the book:
– 2 cups (@ 8 oz) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
– 1 1/4 cups flour
– 1/2 cup margarine, melted
– 36-48 small pimento-stuffed green olives
Mix cheese and flour, add in margarine. Work dough with hands, if necessary. Mold @ 1 tsp dough around each olive, shape into ball. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Bake until set – 15-20 minutes. Best served warm.
– 1 large sweet onion, cleaned and chopped
– 1/4 cup margarine
– @ 1 1/2 lbs carrots, cleaned and chopped
– 1 large white (russet) potato, cleaned and sliced
– 1 large sweet potato, cleaned and sliced
– 32 oz chicken broth
– chili powder
– Emeril’s original Essence
– 12 oz V-8 juice
– 4 oz cream cheese, cubed
– 1 handful shredded sharp cheddar cheese
In Dutch oven on cook top, melt margarine, add onion. Cook til tender (5 minutes or so). Add carrots, potatoes, chicken broth, and spices. (Use whatever spices appeal to you.) Heat to boil, cook til vegetables are all tender (20 minutes or so). Remove from heat. Use immersion blender (or let cool some and use regular blender) to puree vegetables to desired consistency. Return to heat, add V-8 juice and cheeses, stirring til well-blended.
Could serve now. I had to juggle errands, so I put the soup in my crock pot and left it on low for a couple of hours. This may have caused the flavors to blend more.
The couch comes into view again. Kerry Monroe is drinking a tumbler of brown stuff- the whiskey she was offering earlier, Olive suspects- and while Kerry’s lipstick remains bright, her cheekbones and jawline still impressively proportioned, it’s as though inside her black clothes her joints have become loosened. Her crossed leg swings, a foot bobs, some inner wobbliness is there. “Nice service, Marlene,” Kerry says, leaning forward to pick up a meatball with a toothpick. “Really nice service; you’ve done him proud.” And Olive nods, because she would like Marlene to be comforted by this.
Marlene’s Funeral Meatballs
2 pounds ground beef
1 c. evaporated milk
2 c. bread crumbs
onion, minced to taste
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1 can cream of mushroom soup
2 Tbsp. catsup
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix hamburger, evaporated milk, bread crumbs, onion & seasoned salt. Shape into meatballs. Bake for 15 minutes or until browned. Reduce heat to 325 degrees. In a saucepan, combine sauce ingredients; bring to a boil. Pour over meatballs. Cover and bake for 25-30 minutes more.
Downstairs she went, into the white basement. Stepping into the little closet of a bathroom, she flicked on the light, and saw in the mirror that across her blue cotton blouse was a long and prominent strip of sticky dark butterscotch sauce. A small feeling of distress took hold. They had seen this and not told her. She had become the old lady her Aunt Ora had been, when years ago she and Henry would take the old lady out for a drive, stopping some nights to get an ice cream, and Olive had watched as Aunt Ora had spilled melted ice cream down her front; she had felt repulsion at the sight of it. In fact, she was glad when Ora died, and Olive didn’t have to continue to witness the pathetic sight.
1 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. half & half
1 Tbsp. corn syrup
3 Tbsp. butter
Combine all ingredients together in a saucepan. Stir over medium heat until boiling. Simmer 3-4 minutes. Let cool then serve over ice cream.
The 2011 WHERE Are YouReading Map has been updated to include Olive Kitteridge
I purchased this book from Amazon