Elizabeth Strout, 2008
Winner, 2009 Pulitizer Prize
At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large.
But 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; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.
As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—January 6, 1956
• Where—Portland, Maine, USA
• Education—B.A., Bates College; J.D. and Certificate of Gerontology, Syracuse University
• Awards—Pulitzer Prize
• Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in Maine.
Elizabeth Strout is an American writer of fiction. She was born in Portland, Maine and raised in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire. Her father was a science professor, and her mother taught high school. After graduating from Bates College, she spent a year in Oxford, England, followed by studies at law school for another year. In 1982 she graduated with honors, and received both a law degree from the Syracuse University College of Law and a Certificate of Gerontology from the Syracuse School of Social Work. That year her first story was published in New Letters magazine.
Strout moved to New York City, and continued to write stories that were published in literary magazines, as well as in Redbook and Seventeen. It took her six or seven years to write Amy and Isabelle, which when published was shortlisted for the 2000 Orange Prize and nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. The novel was made into a television movie starring Elisabeth Shue and produced by Oprah Winfrey's studio, Harpo Films.
She was a NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) professor at Colgate University during the Fall Semester of 2007, where she taught creative writing at both the introductory and advanced level. She was also on the faculty of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In 2009 Strout was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge (2008), a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine. In 2010, Italian booksellers voted Olive Kitteridge and Strout as the winner of the Premio Bancarella award in the medieval Piazza della Repubblica in Pontremoli, Italy. Her new book, The Burgess Boys, was published in 2013.
Strout is married to former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, who currently serves as the Director of the National State Attorney General Program at Columbia Law School. She divides her time between New York and Maine. (From Wikipedia.)
From a 2006 Barnes & Noble interview:
• My first job was when I was about 12, cleaning houses in the afternoons for different elderly women in town. I hated it. I would be so bored scrubbing at some kitchen tile, that my mind would finally float all over the place, to the beach, to a friend's house...all this happened in my mind as I scrubbed those tiles, so it was certainly good for my imagination. But I did hate it."
• Without a doubt my mother was an inspiration for my writing. This is true in many ways, but mostly because she is a wonderful storyteller, without even knowing it. I would listen, as a child, when some friend of hers came to visit, and they would gossip about the different people they knew. My mother had the most fascinating stories about people's families, murderers, mental illnesses, babies abandoned, and she delivered it all in a matter-of-fact way that was terribly compelling. It made me believe that there was nothing more interesting than the lives of people, their real hidden lives, and this of course can lead one down the path of becoming a fiction writer.
• Later, in college, one of my favorite things was to go into town and sit at the counter at Woolworth's (so tragic to have them gone!) and listen to people talking; the waitresses and the customers — I loved it. I still love to eavesdrop, but mostly I like the idea of being around people who are right in the middle of their lives, revealing certain details to each other — leaving the rest for me to make up.
• I love theater. I love sitting in an audience and having the actors right there, playing out what it means to be a human being. There is something about the actual relationship that is going on between the audience and the actors that I just love. I love seeing the sets and costumes, the decisions that have been made about the staging...it's a place for the eye and the ear to be fully involved. I have always loved theater."
• I also like cell phones. What I mean by that is I hear many people complain about cell phones; they can't go anywhere without hearing someone on a cell phone, etc. But I love that chance to hear half a conversation, even if the person is just saying, ‘Hi honey, I'll be home in ten minutes, do you want me to bring some milk?' And I'm also grateful to have a cell phone, just to know it's there if I need it when I'm out and about. So I'm a cell phone fan.
• I don't especially like to travel, not the way many people do. I know many people that love to go to far-off and different places, and I've never been like that. I seem to get homesick as quickly as a child. I may like being in some new place for a few days, but then I want to go home and return to my routine and my familiar corner stores. I am a real creature of habit, without a doubt.
• When asked what book most inluenced her life as a writer, she answered:
Perhaps the book that had the greatest influence on my career as a writer was The Journals of John Cheever. Of course many, many books had influenced me before I read that, but there was something about the honesty found in Cheever's journals that gave me courage as a writer. And his ability to turn a phrase, to describe in a breath the beauty of a rainstorm or the fog rising off the river... all this arrived in my life as a writer at a time when I seemed ready to absorb his examples of what a sentence can do when written with the integrity of emotion and felicity of language.
Strout's previous novels, Abide with Me and Amy and Isabelle, were also set in New England and explored similar themes: family dynamics, small-town gossip, grief. Those books were good; this one is better. It manages to combine the sustained, messy investigation of the novel with the flashing insight of the short story. By its very structure, sliding in and out of different tales and different perspectives, it illuminates both what people understand about others and what they understand about themselves.
Louisa Thomas - New York Times
There are glimmers of warmth, of human connection, in even the darkest of these stories. Strout's benevolence toward her characters forms a slender bridge between heartbreak and hope, a dimly glimpsed path through minefields of despair. The stifled sorrows she writes of here are as real as our own, and as tenderly, compassionately understood.
Molly Gloss - Washington Post
Funny, wicked and remorseful, Mrs. Kitteridge is a compelling life force, a red-blooded original. When she’s not onstage, we look forward to her return. The book is a page-turner because of her.
San Francisco Chronicle
Perceptive, deeply empathetic . . . Olive is the axis around which these thirteen complex, relentlessly human narratives spin themselves into Elizabeth Strout’s unforgettable novel in stories.
O, The Oprah Magazine
The whitecaps in the harbor, some familiar piano chords, the doughnut a man brings to his wife after visiting his lover—Strout animates the ordinary with an astonishing force. These linked stories introduce the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine, where the pull of domestic tragedy is stronger for rarely being spoken of. Angela doesn’t mention the bruises she’s noticed on her mother’s arm at the nursing home; Marlene learns of her husband’s infidelity only after his funeral; Kevin plans to shoot himself, like his mother before him. And there in every story, like a tree that’s been blackened by lightning but still leafs in the spring, stands Olive Kitteridge, a retired math teacher who loves her tulips, bullies her husband, and barks at anyone foolish enough to irritate her. You loathe this woman at the book’s beginning; you long for her at its finish. Strout makes us experience not only the terrors of change but also the terrifying hope that change can bring: she plunges us into these churning waters and we come up gasping for air.
The New Yorker
(Starred review.) Thirteen linked tales from Strout present a heart-wrenching, penetrating portrait of ordinary coastal Mainers living lives of quiet grief intermingled with flashes of human connection.... [T]he collection is easy to read and impossible to forget. Its literary craft and emotional power will surprise readers unfamiliar with Strout.
Strout tracks Olive Kitteridge's adult life through 13 linked stories.... Even when Olive is kept in the background of some of the tales, her influence is apparent. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether it's worth the ride to the last few pages to witness Olive's slide into something resembling insight. —Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
(Starred review.) Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope. —Mary Ellen Quinn
The abrasive, vulnerable title character sometimes stands center stage, sometimes plays a supporting role in these 13 sharply observed dramas of small-town life from Strout... Strout's sensitive insights and luminous prose affirm life's pleasures.... A perfectly balanced portrait of the human condition, encompassing plenty of anger, cruelty and loss without ever losing sight of the equally powerful presences of tenderness, shared pursuits and lifelong loyalty.
1. Do you sympathize with Olive Kitteridge as a character?
2. Have you ever met anyone like Olive Kitteridge, and if so, what similarities do you see between that person and Olive?
3. How would you say Olive changed as a person during the course of the book?
4. Discuss the theme of suicide. Which characters are most affected (or fascinated) by the idea of killing themselves?
5. What freedoms do the residents of Crosby, Maine, experience in contrast with those who ﬂee the town for bigger “ponds” (California, New York)? Does anyone feel trapped in Crosby, and if so, who? What outlets for escape are available to them?
6. Why does Henry tolerate Olive as much as he does, catering to her, agreeing with her, staying even-keeled when she rants and raves? Is there anyone that you tolerate despite their sometimes overbearing behavior? If so, why?
7. How does Kevin (in “Incoming Tide”) typify a child craving his father’s approval? Are his behaviors and mannerisms any way like those of Christopher Kitteridge? Do you think Olive reminds Kevin more of his mother or of his father?
8. In “A Little Burst,” why do you think Olive is so keen on having a positive relationship with Suzanne, whom she obviously dislikes? How is this a reﬂection of how she treats other people in town?
9. Does it seem ﬁtting to you that Olive would not respond while others ridiculed her body and her choice of clothing at Christopher and Suzanne’s wedding?
10. How do you think Olive perceives boundaries and possessiveness, especially in regard to relationships?
11. Elizabeth Strout writes, “The appetites of the body were private battles” (“Starving,” page 89). In what ways is this true? Are there “appetites” that could be described as battles waged in public? Which ones, and why?
12. Why does Nina elicit such a strong reaction from Olive in “Starving”? What does Olive notice that moves her to tears in public? Why did witnessing this scene turn Harmon away from Bonnie?
13. In “A Different Road,” Strout writes about Olive and Henry: “No, they would never get over that night because they had said things that altered how they saw each other” (p. 124). What is it that Olive and Henry say to each other while being held hostage in the hospital bathroom that has this effect? Have you experienced a moment like this in one of your close relationships?
14. In “Tulips” and in “Basket of Trips,” Olive visits people in difﬁcult circumstances (Henry in the convalescent home, and Marlene Bonney at her husband’s funeral) in hopes that “in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement” (p. 172). In what ways do the tragedies of others shine light on Olive’s trials with Christopher’s departure and Henry’s illness? How do those experiences change Olive’s interactions with others? Is she more compassionate or more indifferent? Is she more approachable or more guarded? Is she more hopeful or more pessimistic?
15. In “Ship in a Bottle,” Julie is jilted by her ﬁancé, Bruce, on her wedding day. Julie’s mother, Anita, furious at Bruce’s betrayal, shoots at him soon after. Julie quotes Olive Kitteridge as having told her seventh-grade class, “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else” (p. 195). What do you think Olive means by this phrase? How does Olive’s life reﬂect this idea? Who is afraid of his or her hunger in these stories?
16. In “Security,” do you get the impression that Olive likes Ann, Christopher’s new wife? Why does she excuse Ann’s smoking and drinking while pregnant with Christopher’s ﬁrst child (and Henry’s ﬁrst grandchild)? Why does she seem so accepting initially, and what makes her less so as the story goes on?
17. Was Christopher justiﬁed in his ﬁght with Olive in “Security”? Did he kick her out, or did she voluntarily leave? Do you think he and Ann are cruel to Olive?
18. Do you think Olive is really oblivious to how others see her– especially Christopher? Do you think she found Christopher’s accusations in “Security” shocking or just unexpected?
19. What’s happened to Rebecca at the end of “Criminal”? Where do you think she goes, and why do you think she feels compelled to go? Do you think she’s satisﬁed with her life with David? What do you think are the reasons she can’t hold down a job?
20. What elements of Olive’s personality are revealed in her relationship with Jack Kennison in “River”? How does their interaction reﬂect changes in her perspective on her son? On the way she treated Henry? On the way she sees the world?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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