It has been over a year since Emily Petersen wrote a book review for me for me. That post resulted in a lot of in-the-comments Olive Kitteridge reviews, which has been fun. Back then, I had taken a look at Elizabeth Strout’s book a few times, but hadn’t committed to reading it. Why? Because it had won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. I seem to have an innate resistance to the prize winners. They rarely live up to the grandeur of the award, and really, how could they?
I think part of it is that the Pulitzer prize was better suited to the days when the novel was the primary literary art form. These days, most novels are simply copies of other novels. But I will say that most of the Pulitzer winners I have read (still working down the list, about 60% complete) are fairly original–this just doesn’t mean that anyone gets excited about reading them.
But that’s another post. So I’ve read Elizabeth Strout’s prize winner.
Plot summary of Olive Kitteridge
The book is called a novel, but it is a collection of interwoven short stories, all set in a town in Maine. The stories are sufficiently interlocked to make the book one story, but each could stand on its own. It reminded me in some ways of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio, although I loved that book and don’t love this one.
At the center of the stories is Olive. Through middle-age and beyond, she interacts with other people in the town with all the charm and empathy of an outhouse. That’s the plot. She interacts with other people, acts selfishly, and they either benefit or suffer from her attentions. I do not like her.
Beautiful writing, unpleasant character
Elizabeth Stroud can write. I have rarely read a book with such flawless prose. The problem for was that the lovely writing could not overcome the unpleasantness of the central character. I kept waiting for Olive to feel something for someone else. To act unselfishly. To give me some reason to care what she was doing. To make me feel like I had done something worthwhile by picking up a Pulitzer winner.
But no. I don’t feel slighted that Elizabeth Stroud did not write Olive Kitteridge simply to please me. But it is extremely apparent that she did not. When I cannot find any redeeming characteristic at all in a character, I just do not stay as interested.
Olive Kitteridge reminds me of a woman I used to work with at the library. She would ask questions just so she could answer them. “How are you doing Josh?”
“Because I’m doing fine, in fact, I–” The subtext was always On a more interesting note, allow me to interrupt you.
Olive doesn’t care what anyone else has to say. She doesn’t empathize well with others. She does what makes sense to her and bulls her way through life, stepping on others and acting like the selfish people I try so hard not to have in my life.
I do not think there was a better-written book written that year. I also do not think that there was a character I liked less. And Olive is not an anti-hero bad guy that it can be fun to root for. She’s just a selfish person who people think is “complex” because she never thinks of others.
When I read a book I read first for story, and second for character exploration. I believe all reading is escapism, and escaping into Olive’s head for a while left me feeling depressed. I’ll never read it again and after this post I’ll probably never think of Olive Kitteridge again either.
Am I wrong? Right? Crazy? Who’s read it?
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