Sunday, June 14, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

I decided to read Elizabeth Strout's book, Olive Kitteridge, because it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and despite its description as a novel of stories. I'm not a big fan of short story and I suspected that this would be more short story than novel.

I think it was. And I think that anyone who enjoys short stories might really enjoy this book. It is composed of thirteen chapters that each could stand alone as a separate story. Olive, the main character, is not necessarily the subject of each story and in one of them she makes only a perfunctory appearance walking into and out of a restaurant with her husband, noticed by the woman who plays the piano in the cocktail lounge.

Maybe approaching Olive this way is the best way because Olive is a difficult character. She's not very likeable but I did end up having deep empathy for her. Her husband Henry, a Jimmy Stewart character complete with the "aw shucks" language, is a very nice man and it is never completely clear how he ended up married to Olive. Her son Christopher, who suffers from depression, is overwhelmed by her so much that he doesn't seem real through much of the book. The other people in the town who know Olive do not, in general, seem to like her although they often notice moments of deep (and unexpected) kindnesses that she performs.

Strout is at her best in describing the lives of the other town people and yet, for me, that was a problem. Her story, for instance, of the life of the cocktail pianist is deeply moving and yet ... I wanted more. And at the same time I wondered why I was supposed to care about this character who has almost no interaction with the Kitteridges and who doesn't really appear at any other point in the story.

One reason I don't like short stories is that I dislike getting attached to a character only to see them disappear while there are still hundreds of pages in the book for me to read. When the story of a character is over I want to put down the book and pick up a new book. Maybe that's why I do better reading short stories that appear in magazines rather than in bound collections.

But, since this wasn't really a book of short stories, I kept reading. And I eventually got to the chapters written from the point of view of Olive herself. And that was worth the wait.

What all the stories in this book have in common is not really Olive. Strout has written a book that is, above all, a meditation on aging and end of life. Death and the thought of death pervades the stories but they are balanced by births and marriages and joy. With thirteen stories to work with, there is much to think about after this book is finished.