When Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a few weeks ago, a colleague reminded me that some of her AP students had recently gotten to have a luncheon with author Elizabeth Strout and talk to her about her book. I’m told that the students’ primary question was why her book was so depressing, and that Strout retorted that her book wasn’t depressing, but realistic.
With that personal connection in mind, I read Olive Kitteridge. Strout is right: the book isn’t depressing. But it is plain, ordinary, and underwhelming.
Olive Kitteridge’s closest kin in the American literature canon is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; each is a collection of related short stories, which taken together form a mosaic of a town and offer several perspectives on a principal protagonist, in Anderson’s case, Joe Welling, in Strout’s, the eponymous Olive Kitteridge. In that sense, the novel also bears a resemblance to another, more recent work with this same conceit, David Shickler’s excellent (and superior) Kissing in Manhattan.
Anthologies of short stories typically don’t sell well, and most authors avoid them. The copyright page for Olive Kitteridge shows that many of its chapters were published alone over more than a decade. This feeling of discontinuity–or rather, a forced continuity–is apparent throughout. The chapters where Olive isn’t the main character yet she pops up anyway, sometimes only in a throwaway reference, stick out as desperate attempts to make the conceit work. One wonders if older versions of these stories were lightly revised to include Olive’s name just so this could be published as a novel as opposed to the collection of short stories that it is.
As it is, Olive Kitteridge isn’t bad, but bland. Continue reading