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 protagonist is judging others, and as a reader, I am forced to piece together my thoughts on Olive and her neighbors for myself. I cannot accept the impressions of the narrator because they change from one chapter to the next.

The world of Olive Kitteridge is one that closely mirrors our own. The world is full of deep pain and brokenness, and we are people who are often unkind to each other and our motives seem to always get tangled in self-interest. On the other hand, the world is deeply, astonishingly beautiful, and that beauty is found often in moments of small kindness, momentary softness in the eyes of a stranger. Olive inhabits this world with us. Even as her grasp of her own weakness grows, and she mourns the fact that she is harsh where someone else has the capacity for softness, she cannot overcome her fallenness. Olive longs to stroke a child's hair and cup the back of his head in her hand; a few hours later, she threatens to eat a little girl who interrupts a quiet moment alone.

It may be helpful to compare Olive Kitteridge to a collection of Flannery O'Connor's short stories. The 20th-century Catholic writer's stories are famously dark, grotesque even. Her characters are not exactly people you'd want to befriend. Strout's descriptions often remind me vividly of O'Connor's. One imagines Olive's "broad back" as she lumbers around her son's house on his wedding day—hardly a flattering description—and I recall more than one of O'Connor's protagonists described in similarly unvarnished terms. O'Connor's stories are never intended to help the reader see a prettier, gentler version of reality—to look on the "bright side." Instead, she presents flawed humanity in all of its ugliness and prejudices in order to illumine the action of grace even when it is unwelcome or violent. Transformation occurs by similar means in Olive Kitteridge. Olive and her cohorts are not the nice version of ourselves. They are us glimpsed without the rosy glow of affection or nostalgia.

There's a great deal of darkness in the early chapters, and frankly, I disliked Olive even when she intends to be kind. But as Olive comes from flatness into relief, she softens a little. I recognize myself. Olive's irrationalities are mine, and therefore, I can be sympathetic. She doesn't want to be alone, but she thinks most people are idiots. The more I know Olive, her deep-seated pains, her irrational sensitivities, her ability to say to a recent widower "then you're in hell" over the loss of his wife, the more I see myself.

As I look at Crosby, Maine, through Olive's eyes, I see how disordered her loves and desires are, but I also see her buried desires for good, to love well. And I realize I share this. My loves and desires and orientation toward the world are deeply disordered, but because I can see the specks of goodness in Olive, I can see myself with more nuance. I have empathy for Olive and her neighbors, and perhaps a measure more of grace for myself.

Natalie Race is associate editor of The Curator, published every Friday at CuratorMagazine.com. She resides in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is on staff with New City Arts Initiative.