Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, has garnered acclaim and attention in large doses since it was published in 2008. I admit, I am skeptical of books endorsed by the Oprah Empire, but this novel did a rare and lovely thing: It convinced me of the goodness of a repugnant human being.

The novel covers several years in the life of Kitteridge, a teetotaling teacher who frightens her students, oppressively loves her son, and is baffled by her husband's cheery disposition. In the opening chapter, Olive is a secondary character as the narrator follows Olive's sweet, mild-mannered husband, Henry. The reader's initial acquaintance with Olive is mediated through other characters' experience of her, learning of Olive's coldness to her husband, her acid tongue, her weeks of weeping alone after the death of a coworker. But Olive's internal world is out of our reach. To the reader, and to everyone in her small town of Crosby, Maine, she is opaque.

In subsequent chapters, we move in and out of proximity to Olive as the narrator shadows various citizens of Crosby. At times we see things through Olive's eyes. At others, we peer into the thoughts of one of Olive's former students or the piano player for whom Henry always had a kind word—people connected to Olive by the loosest of social threads. At the opening of several chapters, I struggle to orient myself. Who is this new character? Are they kind? Do they know Olive? Where are we? That disorientation stops me from labeling characters as friend or foe, ally or nemesis.

Strout destroys the illusion of objectivity and gives the reader a democratic means to build a composite knowledge of Olive and the people of Crosby. The reader is acutely aware that each ...

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