Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout, Random House Inc, 2008, 270 pp
The Pulitzer Prize winner for 2009 is another collection of connected short stories, called a "novel in stories." In fact, six of the chapters were published as stories in various magazines between 1992 and 2007. The small town of Crosby, Maine and the character Olive Kitteridge tie the stories together.
As with Let the Great World Spin, I had problems reading this one. I did not entirely like it until I got to the very end. Olive Kitteridge spent her life teaching math at the local grade school. She was a successful teacher but an impatient, overly protective and sometimes cruel mother to her only child, a son who grew up to be an odd, troubled man. Most of the stories are set later in Olive's life with flashbacks to her earlier years. As far as I could tell, there were only a few reasonably sane and fulfilled individuals in the town, the rest being dysfunctional in all the usual human ways plus a few other ways unique to small coastal towns in Maine.
Elizabeth Strout is clearly a gifted writer. I had deep feelings for all the characters, except strangely enough, Olive. She was a hard woman to like or admire, though outside of her family, she exuded a down-to-earth, calm wisdom which was valued by other hard-pressed individuals. Improbably, I thought, her husband loved her and was always kind to her.
Despite the good writing and my usual interest in what makes dysfunctional human beings tick, I was not thrilled. It took a lively, passionate book group discussion to lead me to my main objection. Short stories are pieces of writing in themselves and must necessarily come to a stop, an ending, a conclusion. A novel generally flows along with a narrative arc that may skip around in time and place, but for me as a reader, takes me through something (a plot, a theme, etc.) from some kind of beginning to what feels like a more or less satisfying denouement.
The journey through Olive Kitteridge's story had too many stops, like traveling on a local train, so that by the time I reached the quite satisfying final story/chapter, I was happy to see Olive finally show growth as a character but irritated because of all the stops. I do agree that Olive Kitteridge is a uniquely American story ( one requirement for the Pulitzer Prize) and also a worthy addition to the body of fiction set in Maine. I was reminded of one of my favorite mid-20th century authors, Mary Ellen Chase, whose novel Windswept is a masterpiece of regional fiction. (Interestingly, Chase wrote her own version of Olive Kitteridge. The Edge of Darkness, 1957, is a collection of stories about a small coastal town in Maine, connected by a strong woman who lived there for decades. I had similar problems with that volume.)
This is one of the longest reviews I have written in a while. Apparently Olive Kitteridge got to me more than I had realized. I finished reading it a few weeks ago and it is still ratcheting around in my mind. I will have to read Elizabeth Strout's earlier novels.
(Olive Kitteridge is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)