This week our travels take us to a small coastal village in Maine named Crosby. Here we explore the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Elizabeth Strout titled Olive Kitteridge. Does the author sound familiar? Her previous novels include Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me.
I hesitate to call it a novel. To me, a novel has a distinct timeline or timelines and plot. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 short stories that all take place in Crosby and have one person, the title character, in common. One story does not flow into another, the characters change often, and plots are subtle if at all present in this book.
What makes this a delight to read is the character study. We begin to interact with the main character of each vignette with sympathy. We want them not to hurt but hope. We want them to shine and not be scared. We want those alone to find someone. Then, lo and behold, Olive shows up and says forget that. What we want as readers is nice and all, but not the way the world works.
Each vignette also builds on Olive’s character. There are times when Olive is merely mentioned such as the story titled “The Piano Player.” Angela O’Meara plays the piano at the Warehouse Bar and Grill four times a week. Never been married, has no children and has sustained a 20 year relationship with a married man, she is now in her fifties.
On a particular night before Christmas, Angela is playing carols as an ex-boyfriend walks through the door. He takes a seat in the corner to watch her play as the Kitteridges’ pass through to the restaurant. Angela notices both but acknowledges Henry, Olive’s husband, whom she likes with his favorite tune, “Good Night, Irene.”
Here we see Olive do a trademark move. She waves over the back of her head to Angela as she quickly moves on to the backroom. From this we imagine Olive cannot be bothered with small talk. She has an agenda we are not privy to but we feel it important; although, Angela admits feeling rather uncomfortable on those nights Olive does stop to chat.
It is easy to see why the Pulitzer committee chose this book. We know Olive. Along with that thought, we know an Olive or Olives amongst us. Heck, Olive exists within our own selves, too. The book falls flat as one big story but knitted togetherness shows its humanistic appeal is universal.