I don’t normally start a review with a discussion of structure, but, when a book is described as “a novel in stories”, it’s a must. What to expect? A series of interconnected stories making up a big picture? Isn’t everything that’s not a linear narrative? Is the subtitle there as a warning to those who don’t usually read short stories? If so, it’s unfair. Because there is a linear narrative – one which tells the story of Olive’s marriage and family life. Admittedly it’s interspersed with separate chapters – stories – in which Olive is only a subsidiary – but none the less influential – character.
These stories serve to flesh out the bones of the society in which Olive lives and to add context to her character, placing her outwith her family life and observing her from different angles. They also, highlight the tragedy of her life. She is a success in her career, the maths teacher everyone is afraid yet respectful of, a firm yet compassionate role model, capable of inspiring her pupils. At home, however, she is a disappointed wife and a misunderstood mother. So focused on her own ambitions for her only son (which aren’t necessarily bad) that estrangement is inevitable. So involved in her career and her son that she can’t see the woods for the trees. Neither can the reader because the linear narrative is written mostly from Olive’s viewpoint. So when she finally realises the role her husband played in her life, it is too late. When her son delivers his verdict on her parenting skills, it is profoundly devastating. Her thoughts are vivid, powerful and heartrending … and the compromises she makes to cope with her lonely old age, no less so. No wonder this was my saddest read of 2009!
It seems then that the structure is highly effective, though perhaps in a way not envisaged by the author. Olive originally came to life in a short story. A powerful character from the start, Elizabeth Strout has said she was felt that Olive would probably overwhelm the reader, had she remained the primary focus throughout the novel. I understand the point even if I disagree. Some of the stories in which Olive was a subsidiary character were a distraction, particularly when I had worked out not to get emotionally invested in anyone else. I wanted to get back to Olive. A difficult opinionated lady, no doubt, but as 3-dimensional flesh and blood as I’m ever likely to meet in the pages of a novel.
An interview with Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge