I’ve read a number of books that present themselves as short story collections, but which, when taken as a whole, comprise powerful novels. I think one reason that this succeeds is that the author can approach the same topic from a number of different angles without losing the narrative thread that ties the whole package together. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout succeeds on exactly that level.
The thirteen stories found in the book all share a link to Olive, a smalltown schoolteacher whose prickly exterior hides a prickly inner shell, which in turn conceals a prickly center. But waaay down deep, Olive has a capacity for tenderness that would utterly surprise those who think they know her. Olive is a presence in each of the stories – sometimes as the central character, sometimes as an important secondary character, and sometimes as a person just walking through the setting or mentioned in a conversation. The collective impact of those stories gives a fuller portrait of Olive than most authors would be able to create in a traditional novel twice as long.
Olive herself is a memorable character, but there are others who stand out as well: Olive’s husband Henry, a quietly powerful personality in his own right; a young girl whose legal troubles reveal a deeper problem; and a young woman on the brink of an irreversible act. The stories that Strout places these characters in are all very different, but her skill at creating them as individuals is consistent.
One reason these stories are so successful is that they mostly take place in a small town in Maine. Although people come and go, there is enough continuity and rootedness that Strout is able to examine the ripples which emanate from Olive’s presence. Sometimes those ripples are enough to push another character to safety; at other times they threaten to swamp someone’s fragile existence. That kind of insight would come across as far-fetched in any other setting.
If you like books structured the same way, you might give Rosina Lippi’s Homestead and Sherman Alexie’s Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven a try. Both use the short story approach to accumulate details that create an indelible image. If you’d like to read a book about an unpleasant woman whose life is gradually peeled back, you might try Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.
Check the WRL catalog for Olive Kitteridge.