November is Novel Writing Month. I have several friends participating, hell-bent on writing 150 pages before December strikes. They’re on strict word-count schedules and doing really admirable jobs sticking to them!
I, on the other hand, have been working on my collection of linked short stories since late 2007 and have barely cleared the 150 page mark. Hmmm. I could do the math, but I definitely do not want to know my words-per-day average.
Olive Kitteridge, a collection of linked short stories by Elizabeth Strout, was assigned to me by Sara, who saw structural similarities with my project and thought the collection could give me some technical help while I plugged away at mine. And–it worked! This is why Sara’s a super star writing professor.
Olive Kitteridge, the title character of the book, appears in each of the collection’s short stories, sometimes as the protagonist, sometimes as the antagonist, sometimes as a peripheral yet symbolically important character. She is a large, lumbering old woman with “the strong passions and prejudices of a peasant,” (264). She is also the type of woman to characterize herself so. For the people of Crosby, Maine, as for the reader, Olive is a hard person to like. Opinionated, curmudgeonly, at times obnoxious, townspeople wonder how her saint of a husband, Henry, could stand her and think it’s no wonder her beloved son, Christopher, deserted her. Her seventh grade charges are terrified of her years after their tenure in her math class has ended.
And yet, over the course of the book, Ms. Strout so fully realizes this character that the reader can’t help but get behind her. In the story “A Little Burst,” Olive’s son Christopher marries for the first time and she wears a dress that sounds, per her description, atrocious. It seems misguided for her to take such comfort in it, especially when she should be focusing on her son and her new daughter-in-law, Suzanne. But, when Olive overhears Suzanne criticizing her dress, oh–I have hardly ever read something more crushing. If the story of that insult was one told to me in real life, by my grandmother perhaps, I would advise her to move on, get over it, that it wasn’t such a big deal, that people have different sensibilities. Being with Olive to hear the comment though, I didn’t blame her at all for embarking, in that moment, on a life-long blame-game, holding Suzanne responsible for all the wrongs that befall her.
As the stories progress, the reader starts to understand, at the same time as does Olive, that something has gone terribly wrong in her relationship with her son. It is a strange position to be in because, as the reader, we have had the opportunity to know Olive not only through her close third person narration but through that of many other characters, as well. We know first hand, essentially, what others in the town think of her because we’ve read their stories, too. Because we are never let into Christopher’s head, though, that relationship remains as difficult for us as for Olive. I kept waiting to get his side from him, to understand why he disappointed and tortured his mother so, but it never happened. It’s a cognitive dissonance thing–I know from the rest of the townspeople’s opinions of Olive that Christopher is probably right, that Olive was too moody, overbearing and needy with him, and yet I wholly believe her, too, that everything she did was born out of complete love. It would have been difficult, or impossible, to achieve this affect in any other format but that of linked short stories. The stories that remain untold are as important as the ones that are.
Another advantage of the format was its episodic nature. Although the stories did build to a whole picture of a person, each one stood on its own as a glimpse of a life lived. Some were more memorable than others, but all were quite good. For me, the most successful stories were those concerning older people, especially older married couples. Each one depicted in the book embodied this same quiet mix of love, regret, betrayal and responsibility yet each family was singular, interesting in its own way. The stories centering around younger people, while still good, had a slight false ring to them, as if a much older person were writing them and just missing the mark. I don’t think this is actually the case, but it read as if it were.
Overall, the book was quiet and subtly heartbreaking. Personally, I found it useful to see how Ms. Strout was able to write each story to stand on its own yet fit together into a whole with the other stories. It is hard to find a balance, in linked short stories, between writing for readers who will have read your full book from beginning to end, in the order you intended, and readers who may just pick up one story independently of the rest. Do you reestablish relationships in every story? How much information should you include when referencing past events? As the writer who knows the whole story, it is near impossible to tell what is too repetitive, too confusing, too vague. I think I can tell from reading Olive Kitteridge that Ms. Strout must have struggled with these same issues, but I think she came successfully out the other side and I have certainly learned some tips from her work.
I just hope she didn’t do the whole thing in a month.