In the comment section of our most recent The Millions Top Ten post, I wrote that Olive Kitteridge, this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked short stories by Elizabeth Strout, was beautiful and moving, and that it caught me by surprise. What surprised me, I guess, was that I liked it at all. I’d only read it because because of a book club – this is a group that pays me to attend and facilitate the discussion (not a bad gig!) – and I assumed Olive Kitteridge wasn’t for me. After all, it’s a collection of quiet stories either directly about, or tangentially related to, its eponymous character: a gruff, retired math teacher in Maine. In other words, it sounded like a “mom” book – a book meant for women older than me, women different from me. I’ve written about this phenomenon before:
I catch myself viewing such books (written by women, and read mostly by women) as somehow not important or challenging enough, even though when I’ve given in and read, say, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, I’m met with something both ambitious and moving, and I need to check my attitude.
I have a complicated relationship to this question of the Mom Book. It’s sexist, for one, as it assumes that mothers have uniform reading tastes, and that books that are popular among women are suddenly embarrassing, or not worthy of serious discourse. All untrue, obviously. I understand that these are my own weird beliefs and assumptions, and that I must be careful, as someday, I might be a mom, wearing my Mom Jeans, reading (and writing!) my Mom Books. I should be so lucky. For the record, my own mother reads everything from John Irving to Lisa See to Phillippa Gregory. She read Mason and Dixon. In hardcover. (From now on, I’m going to refer to Thomas Pynchon’s books as women’s fiction, and see what happens to his reputation.)
I understand, after having read Olive Kitteridge, that it is a Mom Book, if a Mom Book is one that’s interested in the lives of women, and if it’s emotionally affecting. There’s also little irony in Olive Kitteridge, which is probably absent from a lot of Mom Books. If Strout’s book errs on the side of sentimentality once or twice, well, I can forgive that, because nowadays it’s easy to be ironic, detached, cynical, and merely intellectual. It’s harder to be lyrical without slipping into overly purple prose. It’s harder to write about feelings. And I guess, in the end, Mom Books want you to feel something.
But I’m getting away from the original purpose of this post, which is to recommend other books to those Millions readers who enjoyed Olive Kitteridge (all you mothers out there!). Since writing reviews takes the fun out of reading for me – I can only handle the bookstore clerk’s “hand sell” recommendation model – I’ll say only this to those of you who haven’t yet read it: Strout has created a thoroughly flawed, compassionate, vulnerable, frustrating character. In the world of this book, people commit suicide (or don’t), they grow old and die on you, and your children grow up and leave you. The moments of connection between characters, or those connections that are recalled after-the-fact (which “day after day are unconsciously squandered”), are at once fleeting and immense. It’s a lovely book.
Stories like “Pharmacy,” about Olive’s husband’s infatuation with his much younger employee, were reminiscent of Joan Silber’s work, for it covers time in the same efficient, fluid way. I recommend Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, which, like Olive Kitteridge, is a collection of stories linked by character (though not always the same one, and the eras and locations change.) Still, you’ll get that same zing! when a character from a previous story appears in the next one.
Olive Kitteridge also reminded me of Alice Munro’s work. Like Munro, Strout values backstory; for her characters, the past resonates in the present, and shapes it. And like Munro’s work, Strout’s stories aren’t predictably structured. I often wasn’t sure where her tales were taking me; I’m not referring to plot – I mean that I was uncertain of a story’s purpose, of what it wanted to tell me about its characters and their lives, and maybe my own, until I’d reached its end. Alice Munro is the master of this kind of storytelling; it echoes what Flannery O’Connor once said, (and I’m paraphrasing), about good fiction having not abstract meaning, but experienced meaning. You’ve got to move through the stories in Olive Kitteridge if you want to be changed by them.
And… let’s see…
I’m trying to think of other writers whose work is similar to Elizabeth Strout’s, and I’m drawing a blank. This is a good thing, certainly. I will try to think of more… but first, I have to read Loving Frank for the aforementioned book club. Oy vey.