Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009–and it’s been on my to-read list for years. It is a collection of 13 non-linear short stories set mostly in Crosby, Maine. Many of them are about Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher, or she plays a peripheral role in the story and the reader has the opportunity to see her from a different vantage point. As a writer, I love the idea of short stories, but as a reader I often struggle with them: just as soon as I’m invested, it’s over. Strout, though, won me over. These short stories seems to capture deeply human, often everyday-type moments; they stand alone and left me stunned (Incoming Tide may be the best short story I’ve ever read). Most of all, I loved the complex character of Olive herself: often deemed difficult and unlikable, and yet usually fully aware of and accepting of it, and rarely tries to correct misunderstandings, no matter how deep they may be. (Also, did you read the article The Insults of Age by Helen Garner? I found it brilliant and was reminded of Olive.)
I also recently finished Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, which was a sharp, poignant collection that invites readers to read all kinds of texts and the world around them with a more nuanced, aware eye, especially in terms of race and gender. It deserves its own post, but there was one essay that reminded me so much of Olive called Not Here to Make Friends, where she addresses the issue of likability in characters (and makes amazing references to Sweet Valley High and Little House of the Prairie, among others). She says: “I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikeable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things–human,” (86).
On days where I think I’m going to lose it because I hang out with 100 (also brilliant, also creative, also hilarious, also inspiring) 8th graders every day, I remind myself of the human factor. They are 13. It’s often easier for me to extend grace to them because of their age. But. I also need to extend this grace to myself: I, too, am human. And, so is the guy playing his video game loudly on the train. So are all the other people. And that is what Strout was able to deliver in her book: Olive Kitteridge is utterly, heartbreakingly human. And I love her.
Sadly and somewhat embarrassingly, the push to finally read Olive Kitteridge was that I heard such incredible things about the HBO miniseries. It is rare to find book-to-screen adaptations that seem to capture just what the author intended (Harry Potter and Perks of Being a Wallflower are the only other two that come to mind), but this one was absolutely brilliant. The artistry and weight of small details was astonishing and Frances McDormand was stunning in her portrayal of such a complex character. It helped me further unpack, with the help of Roxane Gay, this idea of likability, and perhaps moreover to embrace the beautiful messes.