When I picked up the Pulizer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, I thought it was novel. I was surprised when each chapter focused on a different character in more of a short story-style collection. Then I was jarred again when I realized that the stories move forward in time, tied together (although sometimes very loosely) by the title character Olive Kitteridge. The author, Elizabeth Strout, calls it an episodic narrative. The New York Times calls it a novel in stories. Once I’d made my peace with the unconventional format (why couldn’t they just mention this on the jacket flap, etc.?) I settled in for the ride. And it was a great ride!
The stories delve into one coastal Maine town, a place where people have a relationship to the lanscape itself, where they can trace their family history by generations. In a Tom Wolfe-esque style, each story focuses on different but interconnected townspeople. Olive Kitteridge’s life is the main throughline.
What interested me the most as a reader was the portrayal of Olive herself, which is why the weakest stories, to me, were the ones in which she makes only a cameo appearance, passing through like a ship in the night. (The exception being the story about Angie, the tipsy piano-playing lounge performer.) Olive is an inherently unlikeable character. (She writes back to condolences about her husband’s illness, “Don’t feel sorry, this is what happens.”) What interested me as a writer was dissecting how to create a character that is unlikeable yet readable. What draws me, the reader, to be curious about Olive even though I can’t stand her? Is it because Olive is somewhat oblivious as to why people don’t like her? In fact she doesn’t seem to realize that she’s difficult at all. Maybe we identify with Olive because the way in which we see ourselves can be very different from what the world sees, i.e. we are all more complicated than we appear. Or is it as The New York Times wrote, more of a moral: “There’s simply the honest recognition that we need to try to understand people, even if we can’t stand them.”
In an interview the author said that she believes people bring their own life experiences to the story. “And so whatever book I write will be a different book for every person who reads it. It’s their book: I give it to them. I don’t have a stake in their reaction to Olive, I have a stake in their reaction to the book. I hope that even if they have a negative response to much of Olive’s behavior, they are maybe still drawn into this humanity that is underneath all of her actions.”
Using different narrators to gain different perspectives on Olive may be a new twist on an old style – third-person omniscient – in which the reader has the advantage of knowing the thoughts of multiple minor characters, in this case to illuminate one very loud, boisterous, take-no-prisoners character.
In one story a man is prostrate on a walking path. He’s not moving. Olive comes upon him and recognizes him as a man she’s not fond of. She says calmly, “Are you dead?” She kicks at his shoes to see if he moves. That’s Olive for you.