Nothing like a two-week jaunt, especially with a few transatlantic flights thrown it, to give you the chance to catch up on some reading. I polished off three books on my beautiful trip to France, the first being Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (which I talk about here). The second book I polished off is part of my Pulitzer journey: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, winner of the 2009 literature prize.
Coincidentally, a few days after finishing it, I saw that a show of the same name was taking the Emmys by storm. I had no idea they had made it into a show. Has anyone seen it? Opinions? (And what’s up with them making a show from A Visit From the Goon Squad? I’m over here tapping my foot, staring at my watch…)
Anyway, if they keep to the book at all, it’s bound to be a wonderful show. Olive Kitteridge was a sober, minimalist book, but don’t let that keep you away. It’s excellent in every way.
Speaking of A Visit From the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge is hybrid novel and series of short stories in which every chapter is tied to the last one via characters, without strict regard to chronology or continuity. But that’s really where similarities between the two Pulitzer winners end.
Olive Kitteridge takes place in a small Maine town, focusing on the residents there. It’s a beautiful book full of snapshots. Each chapter is a snippet of a life. You’ll encounter recurring characters in the chapters, especially Olive herself; she is involved in some way in nearly all of the stories. You’ll, in some ways, follow Olive from middle age to her twilight years and watch how she deals with the disappointments of everyday life. (Hint: with grizzle.) In other ways, you’ll just watch pieces of the townsfolks’ lives pass you by. You’ll be plopped in the middle of their story and in some ways be left to wonder how they got to where they were before you met them and what will happen to them later. That information usually never comes, but Strout manages to make this lack of information okay by resolving each chapter in a satisfying way.
Strout captures the essence of a rural small town perfectly. This seems like a book set oddly in the past, as if the town is still stuck in the thirties even as it’s clear that at least some of the book takes place post-9/11. When teenagers Tim and Nina storm on the scene with their phones and parties and modern vernacular, it seems as if they are aliens from the future come to throw the book completely out of whack, which is exactly how I imagine every person in the Maine town would feel about such people. These are simple folks who live simple lives, and the appropriately simple writing emphasizes that. Yet Strout still deals with the complexity of the human experience–depression, disappointment, humiliation, and even sometimes joy–without short-changing it in Olive Kitteridge.
Olive Kitteridge, as I said above, is quite somber. It takes a bare-minimalist, Hemingway-like approach to writing that really works for Strout. (Can I say, too, how many wonderful women writers they’re awarding Pulitzers to?) The author does a great job of showing and not telling. Melissa Bank from NPR says it well when she says, “The writing is so perfect you don’t even notice it…it’s less like reading a story than experiencing it firsthand.”
A short example is from one of the times we first meet Olive. A couple is over for dinner, and the very sweet, somewhat dopey, and rather abused Henry Kitteridge knocks something over at the table and Olive berates him in a way that makes you cringe for the houseguests. Strout knows she doesn’t have to say anything about how awkward anyone there felt. You can just feel it from the events alone, and there’s the added bonus of starting to see what it’s like to be around Olive.
I think one of the key examples of the simplicity of the story is later on, on the day of Olive’s son’s wedding. Olive has made herself a dress from scratch for the occasion–a bright print dress that she’s very pleased with. She looks at it several times with pride. Then, later, when she’s tired and goes to her son’s bedroom to lie down, she overhears her new daughter-in-law and other girls talking about how embarrassed for Olive they were that she could wear the dress in public. The author doesn’t do what many other authors might: talk about Olive’s anger or her self-loathing or sadness, or even something as subtle as heat rising to Olive’s face. Instead, the author stays fairly far out of the narrative other than to describe Olive’s delicious act of taking a permanent marker, finding one of the daughter-in-law’s cream sweaters near the bottom of a folded pile, and putting a bold mark across it, and folding it back into the pile. That’s pretty much all you get, and it’s more than enough.
Olive Kitteridge deals head-on with a lot of tragedy and loneliness, but it’s written in the least sentimental way possible. It lends the book a rawness and authenticity that’s striking. This is a book that stays with you, and it doesn’t use any cheap tactics to burrow its way into your heart.
The sheer number of characters you meet is rather daunting. Check the Wikipedia list. I count 94. You only hear about many of them once, though, and there isn’t a lot of pressure to remember them or confusion when they come back into the picture. It’s your own, personal little Easter egg if you remember, for instance, that the Daisy who nurses anorexic Nina is the same Daisy that Henry Kitteridge greats at church in the beginning of the novel. It’s a lot like how you can watch a random Law and Order episode and it really doesn’t matter much if you’ve been keeping up with the personal lives of the detectives. (Unless, of course, it’s SVU, which has devolved into a bit of a soap opera. Today’s blog post is turning into “Amanda’s Thoughts: T.V. Edition.” I’ll try to get back on track.)
The characters are all individuals. No one is going to be confused with the other, and you get the feeling that all 94 of these people are fully-formed individuals that the author has fleshed out before writing the novel. It’s amazing.
The characters are not necessarily likable. They waver back and forth. I changed my mind every chapter about how I felt about the Kitteridges. Sometimes I thought Henry was so sweet, sometimes I thought he was an absolute idiot, then I would feel bad about that and think he was sweet again. It’s really a lot how real relationships go, with a kind of ebb and flow to how you feel about the person as both of you grow and change and have interactions.
You know, I found the first chapter to be a little jarring. There’s a serious feeling of being dropped out of a plane into the middle of a story, and you feel a little bit like someone may have torn out the first few pages of your book and you’re missing something. But looking back, I think the first chapter was my favorite. Olive sure isn’t cast in a good light in the beginning, but that first chapter is full of wonderful nostalgia and human connection and longing and remembrance. Oh, and you’ll learn more about Olive and feel for her later. The things she says in the beginning come from a place that you’ll understand, and you’ll be given the freedom to respect her, I think. See, I’m talking about these people like they’re real. They feel real.
Another highlight is all the chapters that portray people in love. Look for the chapter on Daisy and Harmon, for instance. There’s some sadness in it, but I mostly think it’s a beautifully hopeful chapter. There aren’t many of those, but the ones that exist are an experience akin to stuffing your face with Noodles & Co.’s mac and cheese. They feel indulgent and comforting. The book closes on that kind of note, and it’s pretty great.
Who Should Read this Book
I hate to say this because this book really is a masterpiece. But I don’t think it’s for everyone. It’s heavy. There are few moments of happiness in Olive Kitteridge, and the ones that exist are tinged with something undefinable that makes your heart ache. I think this is undercover one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. I say undercover because it isn’t like the reader’s constantly dealing with death after death after brutal heartbreak, etc. Olive Kitteridge mostly just deals with insidious disappointments that quietly accumulate day by day. When faced with it like this, in digestible book format, forced to acknowledge it over a few sittings, it’s hard not to feel like life itself isn’t something quite sad altogether.
So. If you’re a beach-reader who prefers lighthearted stuff and mainly uses books as a happy escape (no judgement here on that), this book might not be for you.
But if you’re okay with heavier stuff, it’s worth it to experience the craft of this book. The writing is executed in a way that stuns me. Strout does everything right. If I were teaching creative writing, which I am utterly unqualified to do, this book would be on my required reading list. It’s an example of writing at its best. And, despite the sadness, I really loved reading it. The book is gorgeous.
For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)
Wow, I think I already got it all out of my system.
If you can, you should at least try to read this. The writing stands in a category by itself, and the stories are gripping. It’s an experience that I think you should have, if it suits you.
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