Monday, November 30, 2015

My Reading Life: Olive Kitteridge (Strout)

Isn’t it interesting how we happen upon books we read? I suppose most of my reading life has happened because of rabbit-trailing books. One leads to another and that one to another, and so on. As much as I would like to keep track of all the trails, I rarely even remember those twist and turns. But with Olive Kitteridge, I remember.

Sometime several months ago, I was involved in a lengthy household task while listening to the audiobook, The End of Your Life Book Club (Schwalbe). The book Olive Kitteridge became a major focus during the book-club book and intrigued me enough to seek it and put it on my Autumn Reading Challenge list. As much as it is irrelevant in many reading circles, I often judge a book by its cover. Judge? No, that’s not what I mean; I am drawn to a book by its cover. Rarely will I pick up a prospect with an unappealing-to-me cover unless prodded by a reading friend. The cover of Olive Kitteridge emanated that drawing card for me: calm colors, simple but elegant fonts, partially hidden and attractive background picture, and the corner label “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” I suppose in my quirky and probably subconscious choosing of books that the deeper yellow color said “Autumn” to me, thus landing in my Autumn Reading Challenge list. But enough of this. On to the book.

I won’t be redundant with a summary which you can read elsewhere by someone more capable than I, except to say that Olive Kitteridge is the obvious protagonist. When I began reading the book, I loved Henry. Loved him. I wondered why the book was not titled Henry Kitteridge. Surely it was going to be a wonderful story with Henry as the protagonist, but that wasn’t to be. The story is about Henry’s wife, Olive. Most every chapter is almost a single story in itself and not necessarily connected to the subsequent chapter. The thread of the story that holds the book together is Olive.

I did not like Olive. I wondered at one point while reading if I would have a change of heart, but no, it wasn’t to be. I still didn’t like Olive when I finished the book.

The interesting serendipitous merge that happened (and I’m sure I will always remember this occasion) was when I felt the first great dislike toward Olive based on something she said (and she said, and did, a lot of things I didn’t like). I had marked these couple of passages one evening while reading: 
"But she seemed caught between the pincers of some intractable remorse. A personal, deep embarrassment flushed through her, as though she had been caught in the act of shoplifting, which she had never done. It was shame that swiped across her soul, like these windshield wipers between her: two large black long fingers, relentless and rhythmic in their chastisement."
". . . her problems had roots that were long and tangled." 
The morning after my reading-of-great-dislike, that quote by Frederick Buechner slammed into my day (on the right in the above picture). Shaking my head: How . . .  how designed this quote is for Olive! Surely Buechner could not have looked down through history and offered such a perfect admonition for her. I marveled at this synchronicity beyond the last page of the book, which, in all truthfulness, had not come soon enough. You will have to read the book yourself, if you’ve not, to see what I mean. 

The limited television series Olive Kitteridge is available, so I’ll be interested to see if she is portrayed differently than my interpretation.

Now for another take on the novel: Have you ever wondered the criteria for choosing a Pulitzer Prize book? To me, a book to be awarded a noted prize would be one like Gone With the Wind (which won in 1937) or To Kill a Mockingbird (1961). Though the novel Olive Kitteridge is, in my untrained understanding of literature and prize selection, not that outstanding or remarkable in plot, the prose is elegant and poignant. But, for it to be outstanding, the story and the reader have to need each other in a way that allows its hook to grab on. The reader must be vulnerable to the characters or plot or both. In another time and place, that might have happened with me.

Interestingly, as I learned a bit about the Pulitzer Prize, I found that the book must be entered into the competition (not merely selected by some Pulitzer committee), and a jury of three selects the winner (based on some criteria unknown to me). One of the jurors in 2009 when Olive Kitteridge was chosen teaches writing at a local private university known for its creative writing program
(the university where I got my master's in liberal studies) and has been on a Pulitzer jury at least once before. In another synchronous twist, he is the former spouse of Annie Dillard, whose (audio)book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek I am currently listening to.

Ah, those sinuous reading paths!



Carol in Oregon said...

Janie! I loved this review. Especially, "But, for it to be outstanding, the story and the reader have to need each other in a way that allows its hook to grab on."

I read this a few years ago (why it's not on my Goodreads? Idk) and thought "a beautiful downer". I read the same edition with the yellow cover, but didn't connect to the Buechner quote - I love it "slamming into your day."

I have my doubts that the book could translate into television well. I'll be interested in hearing your response if you watch it.

Dana in Georgia said...

Ditto - excellent review of a book I have not read, but it's on my radar. I watched a bit of the movie and felt sad.

I put this novel in a category with The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Blessings fm GA