A Novel within a Series of Stories

When our book club discussed Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, the talk centered on whether the eponymous character, Olive Kitteridge, was likeable, whether her marriage was healthy, whether she abused her child and whether she was really a good teacher and member of her community. Roughly half the members liked Kitteridge; half did not.

What is interesting about the book is its unusual construction; OLIVE KITTERIDGE is a novel within a series of short stories. The author has said that she thought Olive, who appears in each of the 13 stories, could best be presented in an episodic manner. The format does give Strout the ability to show Olive from different points of view and in different situations. The character burns through.

But perhaps as a consequence, the stories themselves blend together and were often confused by  book club members. They present a uniformly dark view of small town America.  Strout’s Cosby, Maine is riddled with suicide, murder, hostage taking, arson and infidelity. Its residents are hard to distinguish from one another. Even their names are similar: Harmon, Coulson, Houlton and Harwood. If Olive is the focal point, they are the blurry background. Strout seems to be saying that difficult Olive is OK, the others aren’t.

In using multiple stories to tell a story, Strout set up a difficult task for herself. This an interesting read for writers and those who are interested in the craft of writing.