Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Missing Link Project: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is a fine, fine writer, and I’m not just saying that because she wrote a nice blurb for my book, In an Uncharted Country. Her recent book, Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize this year, and deservedly so. It’s a finely crafted novel in stories, each of which is about—to greater or lesser degrees—the seventy-year-old Olive, a woman who doesn’t seem very likeable, at least at first. As the stories go by, though, and we anticipate her next appearance—sometimes she doesn’t show up until the end—the portrait of Olive becomes deeper and more complex. By the end of the book, the reader understands her impatience, her self-doubt, and all of her other foibles, and even sympathizes with her.

In the first story, “Pharmacy,” it’s difficult to like Olive at all. But then, the story doesn’t seem to be about her. It’s about her husband, Henry, and the girl who works for him at the pharmacy. In the course of the story, we see Olive snap at Henry, express her disdain for the mousy Denise, and generally criticize Henry’s softness. And yet, in the very next story, “Incoming Tide,” Olive appears late in the story, and, without revealing that what she’s doing is intentional, saves a man’s life.

While the linkages in the book aren’t as strong as one might expect from a novel in stories, and the story arc for the novel isn’t really clear until the end, the setting and the appearance of Olive and her various friends and family members do tie the stories together more than many of the linked story collections I’ve read.

It’s an excellent example of the form.

Next: Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

4 comments:

Tommy said...

I think it starts with her husband, because he truly is the antagonist... he creates the shape of her character, forces her to make tiny chnages that have big effects in the last story of the book

Hobie said...

I'm intrigued by your ending comments, "While the linkages in the book aren’t as strong as one might expect from a novel in stories, and the story arc for the novel isn’t really clear until the end, the setting and the appearance of Olive and her various friends and family members do tie the stories together more than many of the linked story collections I’ve read."

Do you think a story arc is necessary for a linked collection or just in case you're calling the collection a novel?

How strong do you think linkages need to be in a collection?

I'm looking forward to your discussion of Jesus' Son, as that somewhat follows a linear timeline, but I believe it was simply marketed as a collection.

Clifford Garstang said...

I think if you're going to call it a novel in stories, there should be an arc to the whole, as I believe there is in OK. (It's actually hard to see in many of these books, until the end.) Winesburg, Ohio is similar, in that the reader is following George Willard's career and waiting for his ultimate departure from the town, although I'm not sure we know that this is happening.

Certainly not all linked collections need an arc, and some collections are loosely linked. Dubliners, for example.

Hobie said...

Right.

I haven't read all of Kitteridge, but I did read I Sailed With Magellan which I've seen described as being somewhat like a novel in that it follows the same character through a growing up in Chicago.

I didn't feel that it was a novel, but there was a definite completeness to it that I didn't feel with, say, Dubliners, or any Carver collection. A Carver collection, for example, contains stories linked by the primary concerns of the author - his style, pet themes, etc. But, there are no more concrete linkages than that.

Sailed, was not marketed as a novel, but I think they could have gotten away with it. The repetition and development of the main character/sometimes narrator seems sufficient to me.

However, it seems like a fine-line between linked-short and novel-in-shorts. I'll bet that line gets further blurred after the success of Kitteridge.