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By Mary Lee:
A few months ago, a good friend dropped off a book, saying, “Here, you’ll love this. It’s a collection of short stories.” What she handed me was, Olive Kitteridge, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction by Elizabeth Strout. I thanked her a little too politely, all the while thinking, OK, it’s a Pulitzer winner, but I don’t really like short stories.
I set the book aside for a few weeks, then, feeling the weight of obligation, picked it back up again to skim my way through it. What I found was a complete surprise — not just a collection of 13 masterful short stories, but a complex, deeply moving photo album of life in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. This “novel in stories” is so crammed with emotional and bittersweet moments, hope and humor, that every now and then I felt compelled to re-read a passage just so I could be sure I’d fully absorbed its richness.
The main character is Olive Kitteridge, a sourpuss of a retired math teacher who harumphs her way through life. Prickly and opinionated, Olive is not exactly a likeable woman, but we see a lot of ourselves in her — both the bad and the good — and come to recognize the vulnerability and compassion under her unsentimental veneer. Despite her thorniness, she’s a real heroine for real life, and eventually we find ourselves rooting for her.