September 30th, 2013

Some thoughts on Olive Kitteridge

The harder I work on writing short stories, the more I read of them. I do it partly for professional reasons, of course: I like to see other interpretations of the form, be inspired by the successes and learn from the missteps. Sometimes I’m searching for specific clues and tricks, actually looking for problems similar to my own so I can see how others solve them. Sometimes I’m just generally keeping abreast of what’s going on in my world. And my world is short stories, no doubt about that, at least literarily speaking.

But thank goodness, I have not lost my ability to just enjoy short stories as a reader above all else. And honestly, the more I learn through my work about all the different pitfalls and pratfalls and challenges of the short story, the more I’m able to fully appreciate it when an author gets it really right. And when that happens, I lose my ability to read like a writer, looking for the technical bits, the seams and strings that allow the story to work the way it does. I just read like a reader, and live inside the stories. (This is one of the many reasons I’m bad at reviewing.)

Such is the case with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. This is a wonderful collection of short stories about the small town of Crosby, Maine, and the various folks who live there. Some are happy, many are sad, but all of them are acquainted with the title character. Olive, her husband, and her son are central to many of the stories in the collection–many are told from either Olive’s perspective or her husband’s. In others, though, Olive, Henry, and their son Christopher are just passing through in the more central drama of other lives. In each story, though, one or more of the Kitteridges are *seen*: undestood, imagined, fathomed, or interpreted by the other characters, often in wildly different ways from one story to the next. Thus we see Olive is grim and fearful math teacher, or a wise inspirational one; as a grumpy wife or a good neighbour; or, in the end, a mixture of so many different personas, as we all are.

*Olive Kitteridge* is more than the sum of it’s parts. All short story collections should have pieces that mutually illuminate each other, even if they aren’t linked on the level of plot or character. This should occur even more strongly in a collection that *is* linked. Even if there are some individual stories that didn’t really work for me, I still saw how they worked in the context of the whole book. I simply could not buy that a teacher would recognize a former 7th grade student she hadn’t seen in 20 years through a car window and, moreover, would go and sit in his car with him uninvited AND divine that he was contemplating suicide AND attempt to talk him out of it. But in the context of the book as am exploration of Olive’s whole character well…yeah, ok, this is poignant, this is interesting, this expands what I know and how I feel about this character.

And what I said earlier, about not being able to see the seams and strings applies especially to Strout’s writing style. She thins the veil of author interpretation until it seems to disappear: I completely forgot about *reading* and just felt like I was living inside the book. It’s hard to go back and analyze the style; I didn’t think about it at the time. But that’s a style, too.

I have started going over to Goodreads to see what others think after I finish a book. A lot of apparently very young people found the book too dark and grim, and too much focussed on older people. I was surprised at this Gilmourian naivete, that what one personally prefers to read is objectively what is best. I actually thought it was refreshing to read about people in their 60s and 70s who weren’t consumed by reminiscence, but instead actually living out their present lives as if they were actual fascinating dramas: which of course they are. Too often, the elderly in novels are reduced to stage props of wisdom or nostalgia, rarely characters in their own right. Without getting all preachy about it, Strout goes a ways towards remedying the problem.

This is a bit piecemeal, which is why it’s just “thoughts” and not a review. But I really did enjoy *Olive Kitteridge*–grim at times, but a definitely pleasure to live so closely with such a fascinating character. I may read it again, possibly while sitting in an uncomfortable chair, to see if I can figure out how it all *worked*.

2 Responses to “Some thoughts on Olive Kitteridge”

  • Fred says:

    Um, yes to everything. You have just clarified for me why exactly I love this book in a way I never could have myself.

    I too was super sad about the Goodreads reviews, the weird disdain for Olive as main character because she was an older person.

    Anyways, I figured the Pulitzer was a sign that the book was officially good, but the RR seal of approval confirms it!

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Fred, I’m so glad you agree. I knew you were probably right about this book but I put off reading because I was worried it’d be too close to what I’m working on. It isn’t, or not in a bad way–just inspiring!!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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