This is a likable enough book, and I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about it. There are bits of very fine writing and sharp details throughout, and its view of human nature and troubles is a serious one. It also does a nice job of capturing a generational consciousness, of the world changing in the new century and the way that people born just before WW2, married and having kids in the 60s, make their latest final manuveurs in their twilight years. It is also a highly commendable portrait of life in a small, changing seaside community in Maine, and that, for me at least, thinking about Sarah Orne Jewett, may be its most engaging feature.
OK has an interesting, effective form, linked stories, and that may be where it didn’t grab me as I might have wished, but I don’t want to take anything away from the accomplishment. It certainly worked for the author, Strout, in marvelous and remunerative, highly successful ways. The method (and resulting form), as everyone must know, is to write stories about the presumably fictional Crosby, Maine, with different, telling characters, while interweaving the title character into all of them, and tracking her specifically through four or five stories and thus giving the book a sort of novelistic wholeness. It’s extremely well-done, especially in its introduction, as the first story examines the life of Olive’s husband, Henry, and makes her distant, flawed, and intriguing, and we want to know more. In the second story, which may have been my favorite, Olive appears as a sort of incidental heroine, engaging a suicidal young man and turning him into an unlikely hero and lifesaver. At this point we still don’t know where the book is going or its tone, but the perceptions and action are good, it might be a small town, big-bodied schoolteacher lady cozy, but it seems more serious at the same time. It turns out to be both more serious and more disjointed and quite worthy all at once, and that’s how it wins the Pulitzer. I was fascinated at the way the author must have been able to work away at it, publishing the stories in the best magazines, the New Yorker and the Atlantic, as well as O and Redbook, over the course of years, while creating a larger book at the same time. This is a common enough practice and shouldn’t be surprising or vaguely unsettling, as it was to me, but it’s done a bit better here, it seems. There must be some readers who didn’t like the final story, which provides the slightly cozy, yet still older and sadder ending, but the book wouldn’t be a hit I don’t think without it, and it does provide the necessary closure. So I must say that I respect the form, and I like the writing and the stories very much, and there’s some genuine mastery in the book. The stories are finished and strong and polished, and it may be their independence that sets me off. I wanted something more, a greater unity, a more ambitious story and plot, or a more unified plotlessness (as in Country of the Pointed Firs), for the main characters and the imagination at work in the book. Perhaps I wanted to see other characters return besides Olive. But that’s just me.
And of course, now that I’ve considered the book on its own merits and success, more or less, I’m curious about what a fine and intelligent, honest writer like Elizabeth Strout has to say about Sarah Orne Jewett and Firs, which is a major precursor, with lots of parallels, starting with setting and the main characters. One could write a very nice paper comparing the two books, and perhaps some one already has, and I’d be very interested to see it. As an homage of sorts and a pitch perfect contemporization of Jewett’s craft and sensibility, with all the necessary updated edge, OK couldn’t be better, and in that context I’m willing to give it all sorts of credit.