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