Friday, March 5, 2010

Olive Kitteredge - Elizabeth Strout (audio)


The book has been on my list since it was rated as one of the best fiction reads of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly. Then it won the Pulitzer. It was only when my BFF told me she had borrowed the audio from the library and offered to let me upload it did I finally grab the opportunity to experience what everyone else out there already had.

A small seed of doubt sat dormant down in the corner of my brain though. I knew this was a collection of stories loosely gathered around a character named Olive Kitteredge. I'd tried short stories on audio before with Haruki Murakami and I crashed and burned. Was I setting myself up for failure? Several discs into the book, my BFF and I compared notes, and we both were not feeling the love for Olive yet. Was this the wrong media choice? Are we Pulitzer idiots? I told her I was going to ride it out. There had to be something to it.

What we have here is a collection of stories about various inhabitants of a small town in coastal Maine over a period of about 30 years. Some of the stories are directly about Olive Kitteredge, a bull-headed, opinionated, pain-in-the-arse woman, her husband Henry and son Chris. Other stories tell about the day-to-day joys and heartbreaks of the townsfolks, with Olive in the periphery. We see depression, aging, tragedy, adultery, births, deaths...the underbelly of any small town, including yours or mine. A slice of life, a snapshot of raw humanity.

Olive is an easy person to dislike. She is pushy, inconsiderate of others' feelings, controlling with her husband and son, and intimidating. She is angry, she gets depressed, and has wild mood swings. She has brow-beaten her husband and alienated her son. Throughout her life though, she leaves nuggets of wisdom and strength with random people, and we are witness to this. Perhaps she has a heart? She is never quite able to solve her own personal issues, however. Her son's physical and emotional distance baffles her - it is someone else's fault. Just when you think she is going to have an epiphany, and gain perspective on her frailties, the door closes. I'm not sure if she ever gets it, and is frustrating as a reader. I suppose this is reflective of many of us, is it not? At the end of the book, I admit I begin to warm up to her curmudgeonish ways, but I'm not sure I would like her if I met her in real life.

Strout's writing is very good. It is straight forward and well-balanced - both descriptive and emotive without being too flowery. The narrator, however, was not good. I know this had something to do with the experience. My BFF, born and raised in the northeast, said the Maine accent was butchered. I wouldn't know, but I found her voice to be very one-dimensional.

Frankly, I am a little surprised this won the Pulitzer. It left me a little chilly. Am I glad I read it? Yes, just to say I have. Would I read it again, this time in print? Nah.

2.5 out of 5 stars


23 comments:

Andreea said...

I'm sorry you didn't like the narrator. Everyone has talked about this book and thought it was great. I don't know if I want to read it, now with your review.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I think you were a victim of a poor audio. I'm not normally a fan of short stories and I really enjoyed reading this book. I can see why this book wouldn't work on audio - some books are just meant to be read.

JoAnn said...

Aw, sorry you didn't like this, Sandy! I absolutely loved it - it was one of my favorites last year. I had both the audio and print copy, and loved the audio (and the Maine accent) and found myself mellowing toward Olive as the stories progressed. She's not the most likable character.. but she was certainly unforgettable.

Julie P. said...

Oh wow -- I'm sorry you didn't enjoy this book. I'm seriously hoping that it was because of the narrator because I absolutely loved this book. We read it for book club and a few members didn't like it, so maybe it just wasn't your type of book!

caite said...

Now you tell me!!
I have read, and read, about this book and finally broke open my dusty change purse and actually bought a copy. Well, I will still read it, mostly because the Maine setting interests me.
And since I have a cold, hard heart, I may actually like Olive.

bermudaonion said...

Your post made me laugh when you wondered if you and your BFF are Pulitzer idiots! Sometimes I think I'm an awards idiot, too! Sorry the book didn't work for you.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I find I rarely like Pulitzer choices. Or Booker choices. I think I'm also a prize idiot (so to speak).

Anna said...

Poor narration is one of the reasons I don't listen to audio books, except on rare occasions. I've heard good things about this book, but I've never felt the need to rush out and read it. Maybe I will at some point, but who knows?

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Kathleen said...

Sounds like a disappointment but I can't help thinking you would feel differently about it if you had read it vs. listened to it. I am so bad with "listening" so I guess that is why I always seem to shy away from the audio versions of books.

Literate Housewife said...

I think we're pretty similar in our feelings about short fiction. I have this one on audio myself, but I just never got into it. I don't think I'll revisit it any time soon.

heidenkind said...

Well, it sounds terrible. Now I'm negative likely to read this book instead of just zero likely.

ds said...

I haven't read this book, much less listened to it, but you are the first person I know who has not raved about this book, and your criticisms relate more to the story structure than the audio. May have to leave this on someone else's shelf. Thanks for the good, honest review Sandy!

Gavin said...

Sorry you didn't like this. I would find a badly done audio version difficult, being from the coast of Maine.

I found Olive and many of the other characters very familiar!

Susan said...

Thanks for the honest review, Sandy. That's probably enough to make me take it off my list.

Literary Feline said...

I'm sorry this one didn't work better for you, Sandy. I do want to read it as I am really curious about the format and the story itself.

Nymeth said...

Sorry to hear this didn't work for you, Sandy! I'm trying to read all the Pulitzer winners (though at a very leisurely pace :P) so I plan to pick this up sometime.

Jenners said...

I have this on my list just to see if it is "worthy" -- like I can tell if a book is worthy of a Pulitzer ... don't I think highly of myself!!! : )

I did know that everyone mentioned how unlikable she is. I'm curious to see how it works out as a set of related short stories.

Alice Teh said...

I'm sorry the narrator for the audio book didn't do justice to the story that sounds so good. I will read this book, but I know not to do it through audio book. Thanks for that, Sandy!

Jen - devourer of books said...

Well, I'm glad I have this in print, not audio, I guess. I sure hope I like this one better than you did, since I asked for it for Christmas.

Zibilee said...

Ahh! I am so on the fence about this book! I bought it awhile ago (after it won The Pulitzer) and haven't read it yet. But all this time, I have been reading very mixed reviews and I don't know what to think! I loved her other book, Amy and Isabelle, and would heartily recommend it. Part of the reason I bought this book was because I had loved the other one so much, but Olive sounds like she would really niggle me. We will have to talk about it after I have read it, although I admit, I am not that anxious to do so anymore!! I love your reviews, they are insightful and unfailingly honest, which is very rare.

Dar said...

This wasn't one of my favorites either. I read the book and some of the stories were ok but for the most part a lot of it didn't make sense to me. I'm sure there are others out there that will appreciate it though.

Serena said...

I've heard good and bad things about this book, but I haven't taken the plunge yet. Thanks for the honest review.

doglover said...

I biught Olive Kitteredge several months ago but have not read it. It is hard for me to read a book that is not a thriller/mystery. Did anyone read "Empire Falls".