Olive Kitteridge

Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge. Random House (New York: 2008).

A beautifully-written novel structured as a story cycle about characters in a small Maine town, some focusing on Olive, the titular character, a retired schoolteacher, and Olive Kitteridgeothers only touching on her, and yet Olive is a heavy presence throughout, difficult, complicated and unforgettable. She’s flawed, but has a ruthless honesty which makes her compelling. For writers: Although this story lacks a conventional plot, the constant tension within and between the characters keeps us turning the page. Whenever Olive is present, we’re never sure just how far she might go. This novel’s undeniable excellence, and its commercial success, provide an argument for the centrality of character and a fine demonstration of how the very specific can resonate on a universal level.


Hamilton, Jane. Disobedience. Anchor Books (New York: 2000).

DisobedienceRiveting book about 17-yr-old Henry and his obsession with his mother’s secret affair. He keeps silent as if that alone has the power to keep their world from changing, but his attempt at detached irony takes on a bitter edge. When his younger sister’s obsession with Civil War reenactments triggers a crisis, we see whether this family can come through. Henry’s scorn for his mother is laced with unwilling sympathy. Complicated and compelling, like love. For writers: An excellent example of first-person voice done well. We know we’re only getting Henry’s take on things, but that’s what the story is about: his perspective. His growth, or failure to grow.

The Hours

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. Picador (New York: 1998).

The HoursBrilliant novel that weaves together the lives of three women: Virginia Wolfe, the author; Clarissa, a modern day Mrs. Dalloway (as a gay, 1990’s New Yorker); and Laura, a depressed 1950’s housewife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway. Wolfe’s struggles with mental illness are depicted with haunting insight. Death bookends the novel as Clarissa faces the suicide of Richard, her dear, gifted, terminally ill friend. Yet despite all the depression and death, this book, like Mrs. Dalloway herself, manages to celebrate life. For writers: A tour-de-force demonstration of reimagining. Cunningham has created something new that is moving and profound in its own right, while paying homage to a classic.