Elizabeth Strout is a well-known novelist who has written several highly acclaimed books, including last year’s My Name Is Lucy Barton and the new Anything Is Possible, However, she is most famous for her 2008 novel, Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. I read an article about her in a recent issue of the New Yorker, which piqued my interest. I had tried reading My Name Is Lucy Barton when it came out last year, but didn’t really enjoy it. After the New Yorker article, I thought I should give her writing another try. And what better book than her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge?
It was a good choice. While I can’t say that I loved the book – to the extent that I would go out and buy a copy of it to add to my personal collection – I found it extremely well written and can see why it won one of the highest literary honors there is for fiction. It is also very unusual in its format. Set in the small town of Cosby in Maine, the book tells the story of several different people in the town, with each of its thirteen chapters devoted to a different story. It’s almost like reading a collection of short stories, except that there is a common thread between them, an older woman called Olive Kitteridge. While some of the chapters are specifically about her and the significant events in her life – such as her husband having a stroke and eventually dying, and her son whom she doted on getting married to a somewhat obnoxious woman, moving away from home, getting divorced, getting remarried, and having a child – many of the stories center around other people in the town and she is peripheral to them. In fact, in some of them, she barely makes an appearance.
Typically, most story collections like this start off being disparate and disconnected but then bring all the threads together, with all the different characters’ lives somehow intersecting towards the end. But this is not the case with Olive Kitteridge. Only the stories that are focused on her seem to have some kind of story line, tracing her life as a young mother and school teacher—prone to impatience, somewhat insensitive, and completely unapologetic—to an old woman who has lost her husband and doesn’t quite know how to live by herself. The other stories are like snippets into the lives of different characters and their thoughts and emotions – such as a young man who is struggling with depression and lacks the will to live, a middle-aged piano player who is still haunted by a failed romance, a young girl suffering from anorexia who eventually dies, a young mother whose husband dies and she finds out that he was having an affair on the day of his funeral, a family whose young daughter runs away from home to be with her lover, and a psychologically disturbed woman who is planning to commit arson. What is common to all these stories, and to those about Olive Kitteridge as well, is how authentic and poignant they are. They seem to capture the different types of personalities people have, the range of emotions that they experience, and the different life events they are going through, all so realistically that it never seems for a moment that this is just something that someone made up. There is not the slightest hint of melodrama in any of them.
As a reader, I seemed to need the kind of continuity one expects from a novel, which is why I found the stories that were focused on Olive Kitteridge’s life the most compelling and wished there were more of them. And even though I greatly appreciated the other stories, I found myself not that caught up in their characters. I think this book should be approached more as a collection of short stories than a novel. I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize, but I might have enjoyed it better if I knew in advance that it was not a novel in the conventional sense. It is best read, not in a stretch as I did, but as a collection of finely crafted stories, best enjoyed spaced apart rather than all at once.
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: September 2008
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.