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In Defense of the Mom Book: Picks for Olive Kitteridge Fans

By posted at 3:23 am on July 13, 2009 7

coverIn 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.

coverBut 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.

coverOlive 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.





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7 Responses to “In Defense of the Mom Book: Picks for Olive Kitteridge Fans”

  1. rubymydear
    at 8:34 am on July 13, 2009

    At least Olive Kitteridge didn't come with a pink cover.

    Many don't consider so-called women's fiction a serious literary enterprise. Witness Jonathan Franzen's silly reaction to having The Corrections picked as an Oprah's book club selection.

  2. Sonya
    at 2:05 pm on July 13, 2009

    A few writers who come to mind that might be in this category: Sue Miller, Hilma Wolitzer, Lynne Sharon Schwartz (though I don't think I'd ever give "Disturbances in the Field" to any of my mom friends), Roxana Robinson, Dani Shapiro… though even listing them this way seems unfair, as if there really is a sameness here. For me, there's something about books that are enjoyed in "groups" in a "I could really identify with the character" kind of way that puts me at arm's length, so maybe this is part of it, i.e. the stereotypical middle-class mom has time on her hands to join the local book group and read books that directly reflect her own life in some therapeutic way. I will say that my sister, a new mom, once asked me to bring her some books to read, "light reading" she could breeze through during the boring 45 minute breast-feeding sessions. And she meant "light" literally, i.e. something she could hold in one hand and even turn pages one-handed. It was the first time I'd ever browsed a bookstore shelf looking specifically at spine width. An early Laurie Colwin novel seemed to do the trick.

    "Ideas of Heaven" is terrific; I give it often as a gift.

  3. Edan
    at 9:31 pm on July 13, 2009

    Thanks for your comments, Sonya and Ruby. Ruby, I recommend reading Franzen's essay about the Oprah debacle in his book How to be Alone; it sheds an interesting light on what it feels like, from an author's perspective, to be thrust into that kind of format and representation.

    Sonya, I think you've gotten at why book clubs can feel so icky, though I work at bookstore where there are all types of book clubs, and many seem to go beyond the therapy/self-reflection model. I wonder if a lot of e-readers are breastfeeding moms. Maybe the Kindle is the ultimate Mom Book…

  4. Rohan Maitzen
    at 9:24 am on July 14, 2009

    I wonder if Carol Shields fits the model of someone you might categorize as writing such 'mom' literature and then realize that even if that's true in a way, to assume that identification is a limit on her literary reach is too hasty. Unless, for instance, which is very much about maternal identity, and is probably also a good book club read, without being maudlin. The Deep End of the Ocean perhaps exemplifies the 'mom book' genre? Or the Jennifer Chiaverini quilting series, or Kate Jacobs's knitting novels? Or perhaps those are in yet another category.

    Disturbances in the Field is one of my longstanding absolute favourite novels; interestingly, in this context, it was actually given to me by my mom.

  5. Kim
    at 3:34 pm on July 16, 2009

    Funny, I call them "Mommy Books" which is probably a bit degrading, but I'm firt to pick one up for an airline flight or a day at the beach. But, for the rest of my life, no thanks. I agree that Olive Kitteridge is different, the issues that I thought about were relevant and serious (I read it when The Atlantic and Time magazine had cover stories about marriage), but it was written so warmly I almost wanted to hug the book.

    Loveing Frank, loved it the entire time I flew from one end of the country to the other.

  6. Anonymous
    at 12:27 am on August 9, 2009

    OUCH, the "Mom" books…I resemble that remark. But it hurts, the insinuation (I do it myself) that being a mom is some how hand-in-hand with being anti-intellectual and un-ironic. This mom likes Chekov, Denis Johnson, and David Foster Wallace. And Alice Munro, whose work I can't ever imagine be classed as "Mom Books." "Eat, Pray, Love?" Barf, barf and barf.
    I did feel moved by the quietly un-ironic "experienced meaning" quality of the linked stories in Olive Kitteridge and I plan on reading "Ideas of Heaven" (Hi Sonya!!!!)for a look at the craft of those linked stories as well.
    I'd like to see Cormac McCarthy classed as a Mom Book (all those manly men and, well, um, horses, are so hot)
    No really, I appreciate the review so much. I think we need to investigate more deeply the tendency to disdain women authors. (My sis, not a mom, has said she likes Annie Proulx because she "writes like a man." Whoa, where'd that come from? Perhaps a need to prove ourselves as unsentimental and immune to mawkishness? My new favorite Dude author, Adam Zagajewski, posits that "Ardor precedes irony." (A Defense of Ardor)Even David Foster Wallace argued that post-modern irony and weltsmertz had played themselves out. Long live the true Mom Books!
    —Lisa, Seattle

  7. Edan Lepucki
    at 12:13 pm on September 2, 2009

    I hadn’t seen these more recent comments. Thanks, y’all, for your thoughts and suggestions. I’ve never read Carol Shields, Rohan, but I’ll add her to my to-read list. I do love the new and improved term “mommy book”!

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