S4L Book Club – Olive Kittridge

This book is billed as “a novel in short stories.” Do you like that description? Do you think it’s accurate?

I don’t, and I don’t. I don’t think the stories are connected sufficiently to warrant the classification as a novel.

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of adult short stories; I tend to call them “long beginnings.” Many, it seems to me, are slices of life as opposed to stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. For some reason, while those kinds of stories won’t fly in KidLit, they are acceptable in AduLit. (Yeah, I just made that up.) But I often don’t find them satisfying. I want a sense of completeness in a story, and I may even want something longer, something I can immerse myself in.

I confess I was attracted to the idea of “a novel in short stories.” Like a novel in verse, I thought it might be an interesting format, despite my feelings about short stories. I kind of feel tricked by the word “novel.”

I think I was disappointed that the stories weren’t more cohesive. Or perhaps I was disappointed that they weren’t more connected by Olive, since she’s the title character. Maybe if the title had been the name of the town they all lived in or something more generic or moody, I would have felt less disappointed. Maybe it was my expectation that Olive would have more of a presence that was disappointed. I think there was a consistent tone to the stories.

Why do you think a writer writes a number of stories about a few characters but then doesn’t connect them in a novel? I wonder if this collection of stories was the author’s idea. If you were the editor, what would you recommend the author do with this collection of stories? Would you want to publish them as they are or follow a different path?

Categories: Reading

7 replies »

  1. It has been several years since I’ve read this book, but I’ll toss in my two cents whenever the mood hits me. How does that sound?

    About the book deserving to be called a novel…I think it does deserve that. While some of it may seem a bit disjointed, I think that’s true of our lives, as well. I like the way the book is shown from the points of view of so many different people. I think it’s those various points of view that illuminate how very different our shared experiences are, and also subtle personality traits that are so key to my personal enjoyment of a book.

    I can’t recall the details of the book, but I do remember that I enjoyed it and liked the writing. I wouldn’t call it one of my top reads in the last decade (The Help definitely earns that title)…but I found it a worthwhile read.

    Then again, I enjoy the genre of short stories. That’s a basic difference between the two of us, and that may explain why I liked the book (novel!) and you did not.

  2. Oh, gosh, I didn’t mean to sound as though I didn’t like the book. I, too, find the characters well drawn, nicely shaded, and interesting to contemplate. That there was more than one story and that the stories were sometimes related, or at least had the same characters, gave me more to chew on than a stand-alone short story.

    There’s plenty that I enjoyed about the book. It just doesn’t fit the bill as a novel for me–at least, not with the title it was given.

    Please pipe in at will!

    And thanks for the recommendation for The Help. You just named our March book!

  3. I have to confess I’m plodding along very slowly…I’m enjoying it, and it is definitely giving me lots to think about, it’s just going slowly for me. I do think the writing is outstanding.

    Jen, I’m not a huge fan of short stories, either. You voiced exactly why – that they are often “slices of life.” Short stories are not something I typically pick up on my own, but I’m glad to get out of my comfort zone sometimes.

  4. Haha! From your opening post about Olive Kitteridge (you may want to stick the “e” in your header for the posts), I incorrectly inferred that you didn’t care for the book or how it was written. I was way off, huh? You have to admit, though, that your opening post was mostly critique and not much adulation. I am glad to see that you enjoyed the writing as well.

  5. The edition I’m reading has an interview with Strout (& Kitteridge) in the back, and it talks about this, and I thought it was interesting.

    When asked about the short story format, Strout said , “I chose to use this form primarily because I envisioned the power of Olive’s character as best told in an episodic manner. I thought the reader might need a little break from her at times, as well….I also love point of view, and I thought it would be interesting for the reader to see you from different sets of eyes in the community. You are Olive, but you are also a member of the town, and therefore your role, in its many permutations, could be revealed by telling the story of you in this way.”

  6. I love it when authors consider things like this and seek novel (pun intended, of course) ways to convey a story, but I also feel free to critique these interesting approaches while thoroughly respecting them. I can understand wanting to give readers a break from Olive, but I think that could happen without shoving her completely out of the picture. I think the stories where she is minimally visible don’t do much to shed light on her or even the issues that surround her. I think they are weak choices, that other stories would be more effective. My sense is Strout is forcing existing material on the story rather than creating new, better-fitting stories. They’re fine stories; I just don’t agree with the choice to include them in this collection for the purpose and reason she states.

    I agree, too, that it is interesting to see Olive from different PsOV. But if the story doesn’t show us Olive or how the character sees her, what’s the point?

    Shelly mentions in an earlier comment something about how it’s interesting to see shared experiences from different PsOV. I love that, too, but these disconnected stories aren’t shared events. They’re different PsOV about different events and experiences. Where there’s more overlap, yes, I find it relevant and interesting.

    As for me being Olive and the various members of the town…uh, no. I didn’t feel that way at all. Did you?

  7. I haven’t done a good job following along!

    It’s not clear the way I typed it, but Strout was actually having a three-way conversation with the interviewer and Olive…so she was literally talking directly to Olive with this remark.