This is a guest post from Emily January Petersen. Emily is a great friend of mine and reads widely and deeply. Today she is taking a look at our latest Pulitzer winner–and Emily isn’t sure that she agrees. Fantastic stuff from a brilliant person. Enjoy the Olive Kitteridge synopsis and discussion.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
I keep a list of the books I read. Each time I finish one, I type it onto the list, alphabetically by author, then I put a simple “Yes” or “No” next to it. These two words represent whether or not I would recommend the book to a friend. Most books get a “Yes,” a few get “Yes!” and even fewer get “Yes!!!” I enjoy reading, therefore most of the books I read get a nod of approval because if I did not like them much to begin with, say, in the first chapter or so, I stop reading.
Today, I put a “No” next to a book. What, you ask? Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. “But that’s this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner,” you say. I say it shouldn’t have won. You are probably also wondering how I managed to finish this book if I did not like it, as I told you that I quit after a first chapter if I am not impressed. I do this because I do not want to waste my precious reading time on books that do not interest me. However, I stuck with Olive Kitteridge because it had won our country’s most exclusive prize in literature. I wanted to be impressed. I wanted to read what the panel of jurors had read. I wanted to know why it had won. Well, after finishing all 270 pages of it, I honestly can’t tell you why.
I can tell you that the novel is written much more like a collection of short stories, except Olive Kitteridge, the main character, appears in each story. She is a middle-aged math teacher who first appears as a nagging wife to her pharmacist husband. She is overweight, gruff, and an atheist who hates the president, who remains unnamed but is described as a lying cowboy who was once addicted to cocaine. Olive is staunch in her beliefs and unmoving in her convictions. Henry Kitteridge, the henpecked husband, once tells her that he has never heard her apologize. This describes her well.
The vignettes featuring Olive take us from her middle years to her elderly ones. Residents of the small town in Maine, where Olive and her husband live, make appearances. Most of them are former students of Olive’s, somehow touched by a few words she spoke to them in class or by her current actions toward them. In one instance, I found myself moved by Olive’s compassion despite my first impression of her as nasty. She becomes acquainted with a young girl suffering from anorexia, and Olive, in her blunt way, tells the girl she is “starving to death” and then they have a good cry together.
Other stories present dramatic action, such as the trip and fall of a former student into the ocean during high tide. Just as Olive commands another former student to save the drowning girl, the chapter ends. I am still wondering whether or not the young woman lived or if the young man who saved her was awarded some sort of heroic medal. I also wonder if those two ended up married, as there was some obvious sexual tension before this life threatening turn of events.
Olive is fallible, a trait that makes her loveable despite her rudeness. She is not thin or pretty, but instead visits Dunkin’ Donuts regularly. She uses sugar as a way to self-medicate, which is much needed after her only son marries a skinny, successful, bossy woman and takes him away to California. As part of her revenge, Olive takes the new bride’s blue bra, one loafer, and writes on a sweater with a permanent marker before leaving the house. Olive muses over her tricks, thinking that the new daughter-in-law won’t be able to blame anybody for a missing bra, one missing shoe, and a mysteriously ruined sweater. Olive chuckles to herself over the way she will puzzle this woman.
Olive’s elderly years are lonely, and they give us the novel’s point on the last page. “What young people didn’t know . . . They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as need as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it” (270). Reading such a conclusion at first disarmed my revulsion for this novel. I suddenly felt as if I had gotten the point and the reason it had won the Pulitzer.
However, I then found myself comparing Strout’s obvious point to that of Wallace Stegner’s in Angle of Repose, another Pulitzer Prize winner. Stegner’s main point centers around forgiveness and its essentiality in marriage, among other important human truths, but he makes this point delicately and tacitly. Stegner did not throw in a philosophical paragraph at the end of his masterpiece in order to assuage his readers. He illustrated his point through the story and its many intricacies. In fact, a sloppy reader would not catch some of what Stegner meant by Repose. Strout does not show this skill, but instead threw her character’s epiphany in my face.
There is no set plot in Olive Kitteridge, but we do get a sense of who she is through her experiences and her impact on others. This form is reminiscent of the modernist period, in which the life of the mind and stream of consciousness writing were all the rage. Instead of getting inside the heads of the characters as our only window into the world of the novel, we get the action surrounding them and their occasional thoughts in reaction to their situations. The prose is also less dense, making Strout’s form of stream of consciousness much more accessible than that of William Faulkner or Virginia Woof.
Strout’s skill as a writer is not in question, for her descriptions are impeccable and the prose is flawlessly seamed. However, the story leaves much to be desired as does the way it is constructed. With each new chapter, confusion besets the reader as they grapple to understand who, what, where, when, and how. Each section is like starting a new book because of the unfamiliar characters and situations that are constantly introduced. Because of this, the story falls flat. Because of the author’s obvious explanation of her point, the point falls flat. All in all, I put a “No” next to this book because I will not be recommending it to anybody.
Please chip in to the discussion? If you’ve got a better Olive Kitteridge synopsis, I’m all ears!
Update from Josh: This Olive Kitteridge Review brings in traffic every single day and continues to spark conversation, despite being two years old. If you’re a blogger looking for reliable traffic, these are the kind of posts that do it!
Emily January Petersen has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University and is currently working on her Master’s degree in English at Weber State University, where she teaches English 1010. She has previously worked as an editor and has been published in Sunstone.
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