I can’t figure out why last year’s Pulitzer winner for fiction, Olive Kitteridge, wasn’t a contender earlier this year in the Morning News Tournament of Books. I read seven of those sixteen books, including the winner, A Mercy, and the runner up, City of Refuge, and this easily bested them both.
Olive Kitteridge is a good book, well written. Its reach is impressive, yet its grasp is perfectly firm. This is a series of related short stories, all of which refer, overtly or no, to the character Olive Kitteridge. Olive is one of the most arresting and memorable literary figures I’ve “met” recently, but she is surrounded by a dazzling panoply of others. Strout is masterful with characterization, and does much with little in each story. We see Olive most often through the eyes of others–her husband, neighbors, and son.
Olive…knows that loneliness can kill people–in different ways can actually make you die. Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.
Yet we also see them through her eyes, and its a dizzying feat of perspective, pulled off so well I didn’t think to wonder how Strout managed to create umpteen authentic voices.
The stories progress in linear time, though with flashes to the past. Each can stand on its own, yet together they form a complex whole. Olive is a woman of strong opinions, and she often irritates those around her, including the reader. Yet I found her by the end irresistible. Olive’s honesty, her pain, and any hard-earned joy she’d won were a pleasure for me to read about.