The Pulitzer Prize winning, Olive Kitterdige, has a beautiful opening chapter. We meet Henry, his wife Olive, their son Christopher. The themes of the novel are introduced in subtle, yet poignant ways: what does it mean to lead a good life? what kinds of compromises are made to sustain a relationship? what makes life and relationships worth having?
These questions are taken up in the first chapter in the relationship between Henry and his shop-worker, but recur throughout the novel in the various short-stories that make up each chapter (indeed the “novel” is perhaps better thought about as a short story collection that gains coherence through the reappearance of the titular character, Olive, and the thematic concern with the value of life and relationships). Had these questions been peppered with other concerns the reader might be more inclined to dwell in the weightiness that each provokes, but as it is, the constant return to the heaviest of questions – why live? – caused me to disengage from the stories, too sad to continually – and in different contexts – contemplate.
Likewise the ending of each chapter fell into the “too neat” category by tidily reaching some kind of epiphany in a homily-like sentence or two that left this reader concerned that the complexity of “how to live a good life” had been resolved with the trite and too neat answer “live honestly,” or alternately, “lie to protect those you love.”
That said, the stories are richly detailed and the characters (especially Olive) are fully imagined. And as a short story collection (you know my loathing for short stories) it holds the reader as the reappearance of Olive lends it some narrative (beyond thematic) consistency. The realist mode lives! and if you dig realism and the weightier questions (asked and answered in each story), then you’ll certainly appreciate Olive.