Sunday, August 15, 2010

Novels and short stories

One of the sub-genres I've recently discovered (knowing full well that this has existed for a while) is that of the "novel in stories". I have to admit that I love the idea. Short stories and I have a tentative relationship for the simple reason that I like watching characters develop. I like a long, in-depth introduction to a character, not a simple snapshot and then moving onto a whole new set. But I also love the wholeness in short stories, the way a really good short story can stand on its own and that's that.

So a novel in stories should be perfect for me. Some of them are. The White King, which I wrote about last year, was one such book - essentially a novel, watching the development of one central character, but written in such a way that it felt as though I was reading short stories. Enough characters stayed constant that these days I would define it as closer to a novel than a "novel in stories", but it still has that atmosphere. Olive Kitteridge, which I started and finished reading yesterday, is another such book. But my thoughts on it are far less positive. Despite the mountains of praise heaped upon the 2009 Pulitzer Winner (and I absolutely understand why this book won, but more on that later), there were things I learned about "novels in stories" from Olive Kitteridge. Things I will need to keep in mind for the future.

The first thing I realized about Olive Kitteridge was that whereas The White King was more of a novel, Elizabeth Strout's book is much more a short story collection, in the sense that it was at once broader - more characters, not just one story progression, and the wonderful quality of transitioning between worlds, rather than almost always knowing what kind of story you'll fall into - and at once suffering from many of the short story collection downfalls that I'm used to.

There is much to praise in Olive Kitteridge. The cleanness of the writing, the clarity of the characters' voices, the fluid way each story leads into the next while presenting completely different worlds - all these make Olive Kitteridge a nice book. That's the perfect word for it - nice. Not good, because that's too strong. Not fine, because that's too bland. Nice.

And disappointments as well. I had hoped and expected a novel in stories to take the best of both worlds. Long term character development, but small, complete stories. None of the messiness found in constructing complex novels, none of the padding to make a novel "novel sized". Much in the way that Strout's writing is clean, I had hoped the stories would be like this as well. This is not the case. The book is uneven. Not more than the typical short story collection, but still. Some stories are whole on their own and are really good stories. Others are absolutely pointless. Others still are so closely tied to what seems like a larger novel that with the random stories thrown in, they actually seem out of place even if this is precisely where they should be. It makes sense that these problems should arise. On the copyright information page, part of the history of Olive Kitteridge is revealed. Some of the stories were published almost two decades ago, others more recently. It is hard to fault an author for developing with time, but in a collection, it's hard not to notice the different styles and qualities.

As for the matter of the overall story itself, I find myself confused. The book is titled Olive Kitteridge - the book would appear, therefore, to be about her. It is, frankly, not (this is not a spoiler...). Olive stars in 7 out of 13 of the stories, sometimes in more of a supporting role but more often than not as the lead. In the remaining 6, she is a character mentioned casually or a side character - either way, not really worthy of recognition. But that we know her already makes it a strange cameo - not quite a random name drop of an unknown person, but reference to someone we're slowly getting to know.

Maybe it's just that I didn't like this style. I'm not certain, but ultimately I didn't enjoy the way characters couldn't grow, or the way that I liked Olive's character (despite being expected, I suspect, to find her somewhat frustratingly endearing, which was not at all the case - I sincerely liked her) but didn't care about her. 270 pages and I really didn't care about a single character mentioned. That should not be the case.

Again: Olive Kitteridge is nice. That word keeps coming to mind, as well as the description clean, which fits the writing and the clarity of the book perfectly. It's enjoyable to read writing of this kind, and the book does an excellent job of presenting a very different aspect of American life than is typically presented (there lies the absolutely perfect justification for the Pulitzer). I suppose Olive Kitteridge has made me realize that "novels in stories" can be tricky - much in the way that they can take my favorite aspects from novels and my favorite aspects from short stories, they can take good and bad as well. I don't regret reading it and know that many will go on enjoying it despite my relative apathy (relative, I say), but I would have to think carefully about who I recommend it to.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree about Olive Kitteridge. I didn't know going into it that it was short stories. I really enjoyed the stories about Olive (like you, I genuinely liked her as a character), but I found myself bored in some of the others, particularly near the end. I'm not upset it won the Pulitzer because I do think it's an important and unique contribution to the literary canon, but it's not a book I recommend to people. I am, however, looking forward to the film version starring Frances McDormand. I'm curious to see if it uses all the stories or just the Olive ones!

  2. I have heard a lot of good things about this book, but others have also mentioned that it's a little flat. I do have a copy, but have not yet read it. I am going to have to keep your comments in mind when I do finally get to it. I really enjoyed reading your review on this, you were very clear and insightful. Thanks!

  3. Great review! I am going to get to this book because I am working my way through the Pulitzer winners. But I've been a little suspicious of the absolutely glowing praise. I'll take it with a grain of salt.


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