Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. A Pulitzer Prize winner.
It's like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen in some ways; it looks at life, at a family, over the course of time. The town matters - a small New England community, the town functions almost like a character in the book. It's a backdrop, with a specific feel to it that makes it an integral part of the story line.
It's like Freedom, but in a more manageable chunk of life, and with a different, more hopeful perspective. It meanders less; it brings home something solid and definite about life, and family, and small towns.
Olive herself is a fascinating character; the book ends with an intense focus on her and her alone, but the way Strout brings us to that point is brilliant. She offers so many perspectives, so many external details from the experiences of other characters (rather than the observations of the author) that by the time the story begins to center on Olive herself, the reader has an understanding and appreciation of her life that is richly layered, beautifully textured and powerfully true. It comes not from statements like, "And this is what Olive said, and this is how Henry reacted, and now you know this about Olive", although this is exactly what happens; we come to know the truth through life, as it is lived and related to us through a series of glimpses into a community.
That is the immense pleasure of this book: it is true, not by argument or description, but by our own understanding of the life of Olive Kitteridge. Having seen her from every angle, from the ugly and spiteful to the broken and lost, the reader is granted permission to know this woman from a very intimate, personal place. It is impossible to read the book and continue to stand outside the characters; almost imperatively, I identified with Olive. It happened late in the book. Along the way, there are moments of extreme distaste for the woman. However, like grace, an acceptance of her humanity and a growing compassion for her snuck up on me.
I found reading this book to be an extremely spiritual experience.
It helps that I am currently reading Stephen King's On Writing; I am prompted to be mindful of the details, of the ways in which a story grows and blossoms, anointing it's characters with authenticity and offering the readers a true experience. I can't think of a better book to read in this light. Elizabeth Stout is a brilliant writer.
And this is a rare moment; as I finished the book, one of my first thoughts was, "I cannot wait to see this movie." Meryl Streep, please, as Olive.