Monday, January 17, 2011
Olive Kitteridge: Pulitzer Prize winner yes, but not my favorite book
There are lots of reasons that cause me to pick up a book to read – probably many are the same reasons you choose one book over another, why one continually draws you into the bookstore, your fingers tracing the title on the spine, yet you leave it languishing on the shelf as some newer title calls to you. Maybe you think, as I do, “I’ll come back to you, I promise, but I HAVE to read this other one NOW.” (If you ever see me talking to myself in Barnes & Noble, this is the conversation I’m having . I’m not trying to dissuade the aliens from beaming me up – I promise.)
This tug-of-war is what happened with me and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Published more than two years ago – going on three now, actually – I read a review when it was released and thought it sounded intriguing. I’d never heard of Strout. (Make of that what you will – she won a Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge.) Maybe my unfamiliarity with her work made it easier for me to ignore Olive when new books by some of my favorite authors called to me. I know there were multiple times that I had Olive in my hands – and in my cart at Amazon – but failed to purchase it. Until I got my Kindle. The Kindle version is very reasonably priced, so I figured if I didn’t like the book, or Strout’s style, I wasn’t out the price of a traditional book. If Olive turned out to be one I wanted to hold onto, I’d go ahead and buy a hard copy after finishing the Kindle version.
Well, I’m not buying the hard copy.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. Overall, I guess I did. Olive Kitteridge was a well-constructed, cantankerous character that I won’t soon forget. At times I pitied those around her who were subject to her insensitivities, but more often than not, I pitied her.
What I wish I had known before I read the book is that many of the chapters in it were previously published as short stories. Had I known that, I would have been less surprised (and aggravated) when characters were introduced for a chapter and then never heard from again. I like books that have characters that I feel as if I know personally, characters that I miss when I finish the book. How can you get to know someone in a single chapter? The answer is – at least for me – I can’t.
All of the stories/chapters in the book are connected through Olive, which is a cool vehicle for the story. I just wish that I had gotten to spend more time with some of the minor characters, and maybe not gotten to know some of the others at all. Olive is basically the same brusque, cold woman regardless of whom she’s interacting with. I did appreciate the difficulties she struggled with inside herself. I pitied her when she felt abandoned by her son, yet angry at her when she wasted her husband’s love. I’ll remember Olive. But that’s about all I’m taking with me from this book.
Many criticisms of the book describe the literary value of Strout’s style and how well she explores human themes throughout all of the stories, even if they’re brief explorations of those themes of loss, grief, love, desire. I agree. She does that well. That’s just not why I tend to pick up a book and read it for pleasure.
So, now you know what you’re getting into if you pick up Olive Kitteridge. If you do read it, or if you have read it, I’d love to hear your take on it. I feel like a numbskull saying I’m disappointed in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. But darn it, I really was.