Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge (2008) is the novel I recommend to friends who don’t read much. Talk about bang for your buck. Strout packs more character and life into 337 pages than you’d expect to find in a novel twice that length and combines classic storytelling with elegant formal innovation. Each chapter works individually as a short story, yet they are all harnessed together by the deceptively simple title. By announcing that the novel is about Olive Kitteridge, Strout frees herself to depict many other inhabitants of the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Sometimes, a chapter’s protagonist only interacts briefly with Olive, but this piecemeal portrait is deepened by the variety of angles from which Strout approaches her subject.
These days, when I suggest Olive Kitteridge, I’m asked: ‘What about her others?’ That usually means the Man Booker longlisted My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), and its sort-of sequel, Anything is Possible (2017), which works like Olive Kitteridge — nine stories linked by place and character. My instinct is to warn people off these two, or at least to proceed with caution. Not only are they weaker than Olive Kitteridge, they also expose a mechanism that Strout arguably overuses.
Most of the time, her fictional gaze is commendably trained on the mundane. Here is a typical example from Strout’s new novel, Olive, Again. An aging widower called Jack Kennison muses on the difficult relationship he had with his wife Betsy, and discovers some gold:
All his life Jack had been an undershorts man. Never for him those tighty-whities, but in Crosby, Maine, you couldn’t buy any undershorts. This had amazed him. And Betsy had gone to Freeport for him, and bought his undershorts there.
This is how Strout’s narratives proceed — puttering along quietly, like life — and then, also like life, Something Happens.