10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
By Elizabeth Strout
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 linked short stories about a retired junior-high math teacher and other residents of the fictional Crosby, Maine, where whitecaps dot the bay and a dirt road winds down to the water. It won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Olive Kitteridge, the title character, is an angry woman often infuriated by small things, such as her husband’s spilling the ketchup in “Pharmacy.” [Page 7] What is she really angry about?
2. To phrase the first question differently: Many long-married people learn to accept minor flaws in their spouses, such as occasional clumsiness. Why does Olive have trouble accepting Henry’s?
3. Olive Kitteridge includes stories published in very different publications, such as Seventeen and the literary magazine South Carolina Review. How well do the tales fit together?
4. Critics have argued that some tales in Olive Kitteridge work better than others. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review said that the weakest stories are those that barely mention Olive, such as “Ship in a Bottle”: “Without her, the book goes adrift, as if it has lost its anchor.”
Do you agree? What stories do you find strongest and weakest?
5. Olive and her grown son, Christopher, have spent much of their lives locked into a dance of reciprocal misunderstanding. Olive insists that she loves Chris and seems to believe that she has gotten “all wacky” with him only because of “how scared he was of her.” [Page 71] Is that all there is to it? What is the broader problem between Olive and Chris?
6. Much of the action in Olive Kitteridge involves ordinary events, such as going to church or Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s not true of “A Different Road” (which takes “a different road” from the other tales). In this story, Olive and her husband are taken hostage at a hospital by armed men who want to steal drugs. This scene is an example of what Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque” in fiction, “something which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” And a critic saw “A Different Road” as the only story in which Strout went “overboard.” How did you react to this usual story? Did it add to or detract from the book?
7. Apart from the hostage-taking, Olive Kitteridge refers to many violent or traumatic events in the lives of its characters or their friends or relatives – suicide, divorce, infidelity, miscarriages, death by drowning, a major stroke, a fatal hunting accident. Books can seem oppressive when painful events pile up, or so dark you can’t finish them. If you read all of Olive Kitteridge, how did Strout keep you reading? Why didn’t the book seem oppressive?
8. The publicity materials for Olive Kitteridge call the book “a novel in stories,” possibly because novels sell better than short stories. But the Pulitzer Prize judges correctly identified the volume as “a collection of 13 short stories” bound together in part by Olive. How does the book differ from a novel with a traditional linear narrative? Would you have enjoyed it more or less if Strout had told Olive’s story as a novel instead of a collection of stories?
9. Olive shows throughout the book that she hates many things about the world. But in the end, as an old woman, she chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form. [Page 270] How believable was this transformation?
10. For all of its bleakness, Olive Kitteridge does have humorous moments. One occurs at the wedding reception for Olive’s son, where guests clink their glasses and a man says, “A toast to Fidelity Select.” [Page 72] What lines or scenes from the book did you find amusing?
Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.
A review of Olive Kitteridge appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in the post just after this one on April 27, 2009 http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/27.
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The literary term for a group of linked short stories like Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of stories or short story cycle. If you like the form, you might enjoy other short story cycles, such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.
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