“Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it.”
For my 21st book of this Pulitzer Project, I decided I wanted to read a book from the 21st Century. Also, since I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the last two books I’ve read,—two books that I was utterly dreading (Alice Adams and The Age of Innocence)—I also wanted to read another book that I was sort of dreading, but was hoping would pleasantly surprise me. I had no idea—no idea whatsoever—that when I chose this book to read, I had chosen a book that immediately pushed its way into my top ten novels of all time; possibly even my top five (bear in mind this list also includes A Farewell to Arms, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Gilead, and The Catcher In the Rye—I have a feeling that Elizabeth Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, and The Great Gatsby will forever be duking it out for the fifth position).
Olive Kitteridge, I must admit, is probably the most emotionally draining novel I’ve read in quite some time—even more draining than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005; this I didn’t think was even remotely possible. After nearly every section in every chapter, I had to reach for my bookmark, place it between the pages, shut the book, lay it down next to me, exhale a long, deep sigh and just stare off into the distance, just contemplating the words I just read. Elizabeth Strout is an incredibly gifted writer that can string a handful of words together in such a way that they can absolutely break your heart and wreck your soul. I read the book in only two sittings, but it took me about six hours to finish the scant 270 pages that my edition is because I had to take so many breaks just to absorb the material.
My compatriot, Joshua, kept telling me, “Look man, I know this is a competition and all, but you need to slow down with that book! You don’t want to breeze through something that’s as good as you say that book is just because you want to finish it quickly.” However, as much as I agree with him, I almost literally couldn’t put it down. The stories are so engaging and the writing is so good that I couldn’t bear the thought of putting it down—not even for a moment. Strout brought me into a cold and gloomy world that is being torn apart my scandals, deaths, affairs, and hurts that I couldn’t tear myself away from.
I hated being in that place—I hated the hopelessness, the despair, the heartache on almost every page; but I could not, for the life of me, bring myself to leave that place.
The novel is written in much the same style as N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (Pulitzer, 1969), though not as experimental, or postmodern, or however it may be described. The book, ultimately, is the story of an entire town, but Strout employs the titled character, Olive Kitteridge, as its epicenter. Strout focuses most of her attention on this woman, while narrating the story of the lives of those around her. In her narratives, we meet a wide variety of characters including: a lounge singer who’s hung up on a past relationship, an emotionally wrecked young woman whose newly-wed husband is tragically killed by his best friend, a family that has no idea how to function as a cohesive unit, a married man and a widow who have an affair to deal with their loneliness, and a kleptomaniac who can’t hold down a steady job.
Their stories—told over the course of forty-ish years—swirl around the story of Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher who is one of the most complicated fictional characters I have ever had the good pleasure to meet. From story to story, from scene to scene, her personality shifts from funny and charming, to bitter and angry; from comforting and understanding, to bitchy and confrontational; from warm and caring, to cold and callous. She is as capable of being extremely likable as she is of being extremely unlikable. She is easily the most dynamic and interesting literary character I have ever come across. Neither Holden Caulfield, nor Stephen Dedalus, nor Dr. House (who I truly do believe is the most complicated character in television history) hold a candle to this woman’s level of complexity.
I do have one bone to pick with Elizabeth Strout, however…
Almost four years ago, I had this very same idea for a memoir. I wanted to write a memoir entitled “Other People’s Lives,” and I wanted it to document the story of my lie by telling the stories of “other people’s lives.” For example, I wanted to write an essay about my coming back to my faith wholeheartedly by telling the story of my good friend, Joshua Riley; an essay about my struggle with loneliness by telling the stories of women I have known; etc., etc. I would merely be an extra in my own story—much like the concept of the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Now that I’ve read Olive Kitteridge—a novel that employs this very technique and does so exquisitely—I really don’t think I could do anything that would even pale in comparison; my memoir wouldn’t pale in comparison, it would be translucent in comparison.
Thank you, Elizabeth Strout, for deflating and destroying my burgeoning literary career.