When I travel, I take a new book with me. It’s a quirky thing with me. My great fear is that I will be on a plane thirty thousand feet above the nearest bookstore and I will finish a book and still have two hours of flying time ahead of me. Yikes. And since I’ve not made the financial or emotional leap to buy a Kindle, I’d be stuck reading the inflight magazine or, gasp, the the aircraft safety card.
So I brought Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge with me on my recent research trip to Virginia (more on that later) and read it during the flights it took to get there and back. Anything that wins a Pulitzer always gets my attention, and since I had heard this novel was constructed in episodic fashion (very different from your usual, linear this-happened-and-then this-happened fashion) I was eager to read it.
I have to say I was mesmerized by Strout’s skill as a storyteller, especially the way she wove in varied lives with the singular life of Olive Kitteridge, a tall, opinionated woman who only appears to have nothing but rough edges. There was no goal to reach or quest to fulfill; rather the story was a collection of stories teetering on the cusp of Olive’s life, sometimes spilling into it, sometimes spilling out of it. Based on the construction and the staggering subtlety of Strout’s prose, I can see why it wowed the Pulitzer committee.
And yet it is a book I cannot recommend. I don’t consider myself prudish or overly modest but I was embarrassed more than once by the language. There were times, sitting on that plane with a big guy next to me (who completely commandeered our shared armrest) where I had to fold the pages in as close as I could and still be able to read as I tiptoed, cringing, over pages peppered with the f-word. I don’t use profanity myself in my speech or writing, and I do understand that it plays a part in relevancy in some literature, but this was over the top for me. The characters who talked this way were certainly the kind of characters who would talk this way – I get that. But I don’t want to get it. Honestly, I don’t.
There are some things out there that I know are out there but I just don’t want to get them. This was an interesting, cleverly constructed book. And I wish I could say you should read it.
But I can’t.
And that just makes me kind of sad.