I’m reading a book right now called Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. You’ve probably heard of it; it came out in 2008 and won the Pultizer Prize for Fiction in 2009. It was also reviewed glowingly by Oprah and just about every other magazine and newspaper on the planet and was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a small book–I’ve noticed it for years on bestseller and paperback displays at various bookstores and read the back, but I’ve always set it back down, thinking it didn’t pique my interest much. It’s described as being about a retired school teacher on the coast of Maine, and mentions a few other players including her son and husband. It says, “As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty.” I imagined it to be some sort of slightly fluffy, feel-good Little House on the Prairie Goes to Maine.
Well. Recently my parents came to visit and my mom brought Olive with her, saying, “Have you read Olive Kitteridge?!” With her heartfelt endorsement I finally decided to give it a try. My first surprise is that it’s not exactly a novel, per se. It’s a collection of interconnected stories, each one (at least so far) focusing on a different towns-person, with Olive playing only supporting roles. I’m finding myself not wanting to read more than one vignette at a time because the plot doesn’t flow into the next and they’re so emotionally hard-hitting that you just want to linger on the language a little while longer. I just finished a chapter that ended with the sentence, “Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.” I turned the page to keep reading, wanting to devour the book as I usually do, and I found myself unable to concentrate on the words on the page because my mind was still saying, “Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.” I closed the book. I had to leave the taste of that sentence in my mouth for just awhile longer.
My freshman year of college I took an Interim class called Novels Right Now. In it, we read several recent literary bestsellers and debated whether or not “bestsellers” had the literary merit to stand the test of time. One of the books we read was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (also a Pulitzer Prize winner). It was similarly slow, but in its case I resented the slowness; I wanted more to happen. Somehow with Olive, though, I’m appreciating that it’s driven by language rather than plot. I don’t know whether I’ve changed and matured or whether Olive is a better book, or if it’s just different enough that I’m experiencing it differently….but either way, I hardly want Olive to end. Granted, I do want to know more about Olive herself, but perhaps that is coming. I guess I’ll find out, as I read my one chapter at a time.
Have you read any beautiful books lately? What’s a sentence or image that stands out in your mind?