But oh goodness, this "novel in stories" that bears her name is a delight. In some of the stories Olive is front and center, and we get to know her joys and sorrows, prejudices and weaknesses very well. In others, she just passes through the background and waves, while our attention focuses on someone else who lives in the same small town. All this in evocative, accessible prose.
I heard an interview with author Elizabeth Strout on NPR (which I can't find right now -- blast!), and she said she didn't write the whole book about Olive because such a large dose of Olive's personality might be a bit much to take. I agree. We just wouldn't want to spend that much time with her, you know? In which case, her name is perfect for her. Olives are a nice accent, but you wouldn't make a meal out of them. (Unless you are addicted to salt like I am. But that's another post.)
I am not a big fan of short stories, nor the "novel in stories" format. But here, they hang together beautifully. The precursors of this novel are probably Winesburg, Ohio and Spoon River Anthology, which also manage to make a collection of fragments seem like a whole. This novel covers a lot of ground. We find out many of the secrets lurking behind the idyllic facade of small towns: extra-marital longings, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, rifts between parents and children, petty scorekeeping, and all the rest. It's sometimes quite dark, as life would be, probably, if we knew everyone's secret thoughts and actions.
But it's also full of the brilliant, shiny moments of life: the little flashes of insight and humor, the softening of resentment into acceptance, the unexpected alliances that arise under stressful circumstances. Olive says and does plenty that's outrageous, such as stealing a single shoe from her new daughter-in-law's closet, just to season her infuriating smugness with a little bit of doubt. Olive imagines her daughter-in-law someday asking Olive's son, "Are you sure you haven't seen my shoe?" But there are moments of connection, when Olive and other people say or do just the right thing for someone who desperately needs it.