Unsettling discussion transpired for me at Jay County Public Library book group last evening. We had chosen the book Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. If you haven’t read this one I highly recommend it. However, many in our group would not. The format is in a series of short vignettes covering several decades. While the stories are about a variety of people in a small town in Maine, Olive Kitteridge is a part of each one.
There is a multitude of unusual characters, perspectives, and issues to grapple with in this book. Olive is a character who is hard to get to know. It is difficult to completely identify with her because she is so complex and you, the reader, don’t get any insight as to her development as a child. She at times is lovable and quirky and then at other times she appears mean and ego-centric. Olive herself is shocked at how others perceive her and aghast when faced with the fact that often other people see her as mean-spirited or cruel. The reader knows early on that Olive never is cognizant of how others perceive her and she has convinced herself that she doesn’t care. She also has altered her own memory so that the unflattering and painful things that she has done are remembered by her differently than those in her life. Some other characters though, see her as strong, and honest, and bluntly truthful as well. She has said and done many other things that had positive influences on other lives.
I was looking forward to putting our heads together for an in-depth discussion of this very unusual character and talking about why she is as she is, and why she does the things that are so shocking and off-putting. It would also have been fun to dissect the town and the people to try to figure out motives and why some people react to Olive in very different ways. However, the mood was set early by two people who so intensely hated Olive and almost demanded that we all see her as totally mean and shallow that discussion ended early and was most unsatisfying. It was asked how such a “poorly written” work could possibly win a Pulitzer which left me at a loss for how to respond. Well, for one thing I thought it was very well written and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I had to admit that I liked Olive a great deal - for which I got a scathing look so I contributed nothing else to discussion. I would love to discuss this book with a different group some day.
I am reminded of The Shipping News by Proulx which also won a Pulitzer. I had loved that book (in the early 90s) with all its strange characters and raved about it to more than a few people who disliked it very much. I am always at a loss when this happens wondering how it is that I see things and feel about people and books so much differently than others around me. Except my niece, Austin who appears to see things for the most part in books identically as I do. Thank God for her and her ability to make me feel like I am not a freak :- )