Reading Elizabeth Strout

by James Wallace Harris, 12/15/22

My fiction of choice has always been science fiction, but I’ve recently had my fill of that genre and started reading contemporary and literary fiction. I got hooked on the books of Elizabeth Strout and Anthony Powell. I’ve finished Oh, William! today, my sixth Strout book in six weeks, and started my seventh, Lucy by the Sea. She only has nine novels, so I will run out soon. Hopefully, I’ll be satiated and can try somebody new, but I’m hooked on her now. (Concurrently, I’m on the fifth book of the twelve in Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, but that’s another story for another time.)

I began my addiction to Elizabeth Stout with Olive Kitteridge, a “novel” composed of 13 short stories. I saw the HBO miniseries based on the book years ago, but when I tried to watch the show again after finishing the book I realize it wasn’t the same experience. My image of Olive is not Frances McDormand’s version even though I liked her version very much.

I also read the sequel Olive, Again which adds another 13 stories to the Olive Kitteridge saga. We meet Olive in her sixties in the first book, and we last see her in her eighties in the second book. I’ve seldom read books about old people, but now that I’ve become old myself they have become very appealing.

Of the Strout books, I think I’m the most partial to the Olive stories, but I also love the Lucy Barton books too. There are four in that series, My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, Oh, William! and Lucy by the Sea.

I feel both series are kind of experimental. Olive’s story is told in short stories, where some stories only have cameo appearances by Olive. Lucy narrates her story in the first, third, and fourth books, but in the second novel, we hear about Lucy from other people. I found that perspective fascinating after the first book. I listen to the books on audio, and in the books where Lucy narrates, they each feel like one long monologue. The only standalone Strout story I’ve read is Abide With Me, which has a best-seller-type third-person structure.

What’s striking about both series is the sparse, clean prose that feels like a hyperrealistic painting. I believe that’s why I like these books so much after all the science fiction I’ve been gorging on. They are hard, concrete, and mundane which contrasts sharply with the otherworldy fantasy of science fiction.

I got hooked on Strout because of my friend Linda. After I read Olive Kitteridge I started mentioning Strout to my friends and I learned that Anne (Old Anne) had already gotten hooked too. She was reading Strout in publication order and insisted that I should start over and do the same. I didn’t agree. When I mentioned to Annie (New Ann) that we were reading Strout, she wanted to read her too.

Along the way, Linda told me that she heard a Kelly Corrigan interview with Nick Hornby where she asked him what was the last book he was most impressed with, and Hornby had said Oh, William! (For now, I agree too.)

You can search online for the recommended reading order for reading Elizabeth Strout and find opposing opinions. I don’t know if it matters, even within the Olive and Lucy series. For example, if you only read Oh, William! it would work fine as a standalone novel. But I was happy that I read them in series order. Starting Stout with her first book is fine, but I feel her later books are the best.

One reason why I don’t think reading order is important is they all have the same theme. Stout likes to explore how we really don’t know each other, especially our parents, siblings, children, and spouses. And we also don’t know ourselves either. Her books inspire me to pay more attention to the folks in my life and myself. Don’t worry, they aren’t heavy. Strout succeeds with lightness.

I’ve been listening to the Elizabeth Strout books, but I liked them so much that I’ve been buying hardback copies to study. I even ordered a copy of Best American Short Stories 2013 where Strout was the guest editor. I want to see what kind of fiction she admired.

Are any of y’all fans of Elizabeth Strout?

JWH

13 thoughts on “Reading Elizabeth Strout”

  1. As you may know, Anthony Powell is one of my — perhaps my absolute — favorite 20th Century English writers. I will be very interested to read what you think about DANCE!

    I confess I’ve never really wanted to read Strout. Something about the way Olive Kittredge was reviewed turned me off, maybe unfairly.

    1. I’ve been to Goodreads and looked at customer reviews on Amazon, and many people leave comments claiming Strout is boring. And I can understand that if you want a story with some action. I love her writing, but Strout writes about real people and real life and there are no car chases. But then I’d imagine the same people would find Anthony Powell just as boring. I think about the Powell stories like The Jerry Seinfeld show, you could say it’s about nothing. It’s just friends talking about nothing much.

  2. I’ve read all but 2 of Elizabeth Strout’s books and those 2 were her first two books. I’ll read whatever Strout writes. Anthony Powell? I’ve always been tempted but it seems like such a long project – in my defense I did read all 6/7 volumes of Proust – it took me 7 months because a friend and I dove in together and read a chapter a month.

    1. You might like Anthony Powell if you like reading about England between the wars, like the books of Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh. Powell’s humor is very dry. A Dance to the Music of Time is about friendships over a lifetime. It’s also about how England changed over the decades. And it’s about the minor characters in various subcultures. I’m listening to the books, but I figure I’ll go back and read them with my eyes after I’ve read Powell’s biography.

  3. Yes, I love everything Elizabeth Strout writes. It’s been a while since I’ve revisited Olive Kitteridge, may be time to reread. I suspect in 20 years, Lucy by the Sea may be viewed as one of the best and most memorable books that dealt with the Covid pandemic. She nailed it. I think Strout has an amazing ability to write very simply while at the same time having multiple layers of depth. So glad you wrote about her today, James.

  4. My wife and her Book Club love Elizabeth Strout and have read all her books. Patti Abbott considers Elizabeth Strout her favorite writer. Like Rich Horton, I’m a fan of Anthony Powell–a writer who is vastly underrated.

      1. Jim, you didn’t find anything on my blog about Anthony Powell because I read all of Powell before I had a blog. But, I am considering rereading A Dance to the Music of Time in 2023. I’ll give you a heads up if I commit to the project. I’d probably read one volume of the series per month.

  5. I am very much a fan of Strout, but have not read all of her books yet. My favorite at this point in my life is Abide With Me.

    Have you read The Hearts of Men by Nikolas Butler? For some reason your comments on Strout’s works brought up the memory of reading The Hearts of Men about 5 years ago. Now I want to revisit that book to figure out the why of the connection.

    I don’t normally read books about old people either, but I find myself doing that also in my own advanced stage of life. I even read blog posts written by old guys.

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