Sunday, May 16, 2010

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Our May reading group pick. Winner of last year's Pulitizer prize, this has been selected for discussion by a lot of reading groups since, making me think of it as a kind of quintessential reading group book, the qualities of which I've been mulling over quite a bit as I've been reading.

As is a fairly common device these days, this novel is actually a series of linked stories, much like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg,Ohio. In fact, it could as aptly have been titled "Crosby, Maine", as in all but one instance, the town and its environs are as much a character as Olive is, if not more so. In a few stories her actual presence is so slight that she merely makes an appearance at some sort of gathering the protagonist is attending. It cannot be said that these cameos actually add anything to the story they appear in or further our understanding of Olive herself, although they do often reinforce the sense of her formidability as a teacher. What they do serve to do is make Olive serve as a kind of glue for the book as a whole, though personally, I think it might have been a bit more intriguing to just leave her out of several stories all together. If, as seems likely, Olive and the town of Crosby are emanations of the same spirit, it is not really all that necessary to dot all your  "i"s and cross all your "t"s in quite this manner.

If you look over on a site like Good Reads, you will find that a great number of people have found this book to be worth a five star rating, and I've read a few commenters that call it life-changing or confess having been deeply moved by it. These kinds of testimonies have their own authority, I think. You can't just say, "you are wrong" to readers who have had this kind of experience. There are, however, a few reviews mixed in of what I would call the "Bleh!" variety. I find myself somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and somewhat at odds with myself in my own response to the novel.

The truth is, I had no trouble reading this book. I enjoyed the stories, found them seamless in the telling, although as they are actually stories collected from over a long span of time, it's not surprising that there is some repetitiveness in the detail. I have heard a few people say that they do not care for Olive herself, and apart from the fact that the likeableness of a main character is not something I think an author is required to give, I did actually like her in all her ornariness.

Nor do I think the stories forgettable. I think some of them will stay with me for a long time, in fact. So what really is my bone to pick with this book? Why do I insist on having any bone to pick with it at all? I think it's because the stories of quiet, ordinary, lonely, sometimes desperate lives has about run it's course with me. Perhaps my resistance is so great because they remind me too much of a certain type of story I have written myself. (I'm not comparing the success of our different attempts at this, merely our subject matter.) But whatever the reason, more than once while reading this collection, I have thought, Where the hell is Charles Dickens when we need him? Where is the larger than life, outrageous character? And where is the writer who is going to tell me that life is about something more than I've figured out already?

Of course, it's unfair to make this demand of a book that never had any intention of being, say, Great Expectations. What I do think, though, is that when you award a Pulitzer to a book like this, you are setting a standard for what contemporary fiction should strive to be. And I'm finding more and more that I beg to differ to with that idea of success. As I believe I said in my own quick take in my Good Reads review, "wry" and "quietly absorbing" no longer seem to be quite enough for me.

I am not sure just what is.


  1. I love the honesty of your bone picking!

    I think there are all kinds of fiction, and all kinds of readers, and maybe the quiet storytelling balances out with the wild Dickensian storytelling. And some of us like to read at both extremes!

  2. Hey, thanks for reading here, Kathleen. And you're right, there are all kinds of readers, and even all kinds of moods in one reader. I certainly have no wish to dissuade anyone from reading this book, because in truth they may love it. Basically just trying to figure out my own reaction, which puzzled me. It will be interesting to see what the old book group says.

  3. Yes, that's what I loved about your blog entry--the figuring it all out. (And the honest connection to your own writing!) I hope you'll let us know what the book group says.

    I have a friend who was reading this, found Olive annoying, and then gradually loved her and the book more and more!

  4. The funny thing is, I like her a lot too. Not to give any plot element away but there's an early story where she's sitting in a car with a former student and you pretty much get that her crusty exterior is definitely not all there is to her. And the last story is definitely a gem.

    I will at least make the attempt to report back on the book group 'findings'.

  5. Yay! And Julie recommended a bunch of possible Tudor titles...(back at that same blog entry of mine...!)