American author, Elizabeth Strout writes novels and short stories that make me happy to read all night. Her novels and short stories are amazing on many levels and I’ve become a delighted binge reader fan.
Olive Kitteridge, the book for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2009, is a novel written as a series of linked short stories. I found it while searching for other similar novels. (There are links to reviews of several of them at the end of this blog.) Since Olive Ketteridge, I’ve read six of her nine books, several of them twice. I’ve ordered the rest.
Elizabeth Strout’s second last book, Oh William! was short-listed for the 2022 Man Booker Prize.
Her last published book, Lucy by the Sea, (2022) is the first novel I’ve read that’s been set in the COVID-19 era. The pandemic and its effect on relationships form the main themes of this novel.
A little about Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout, born in 1956 in Portland, Maine, USA, and raised in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire, always wanted to write. However, because she doubted her ability, she became a lawyer, and practised briefly. In an interview with The Morning News, she said,
I wanted to be a writer so much that the idea of failing at it was almost unbearable to me. I really didn’t tell people as I grew older that I wanted to be a writer – you know, because they look at you with such looks of pity. I just couldn’t stand that.
She says that everything she wrote seemed better than before, but not good enough. Publishers rejected her early novels, until, finally, she found her own way of story-telling. Her first novel, Amy and Isobelle (published 1998 when she was in her forties) met with immediate critical acclaim. Now, she says that her writing life means ‘continuing to learn the craft’.
She tells a lovely story about her daughter, Zarina, now a successful playwright. When Elizabeth took four-year-old Zarina to a stationery store, she noticed the child sniffing a notebook. She thought,
‘Oh, dear God! You poor thing – you‘re going to be a writer!’
Elizabeth Strout – writing style
I find so much to love about Strout’s writing.
Her powerful, distinctive voice pervades each piece of writing in a way that causes me to ask, ‘How did she do that?’ over and over. Her clear, often poetic, prose and her wisdom make reading her work a joy. Many-layered stories reveal the compassionate heart of the writer although not all of her stories are happy ones.
Her very ordinary characters seem so real one almost expects them to walk off the page. Strout once said that her ‘great driving force’ as a writer is to ‘try to find out what it feels like to be another person,’ (Quoted in The Guardian, 17 October, 2021). She succeeds with her protagonists as well as with minor characters.
An awareness of class pervades Strout’s writing, and most of her characters come from poverty or lower middle class origins. They’re complicated, not always likeable or admirable, but very human, so that we want to empathise with, or at least understand, their loneliness or apathy or, sometimes, their downright rudeness.
Linked stories, linked novels
Although Elizabeth Strout’s stories and novels create the real world, she manages also to hint at magic through her characters. Many of the same characters reappear in her books. Sometimes, they take centre stage. Other times, they play a minor part in someone else’s story.
She links characters, stories and settings, so that a reader feels delight when they rediscover old friends as well as when they make new connections. Strout creates worlds that intersect and bounce off each other, all the time leaving clues to what may come.
I especially like the way she writes novels-in-short stories. This blog explains some of my passion for this form of writing: ‘Ten reasons to love a short story cycle’.
Books by Elizabeth Strout
Here is a chronological list of the books by Elizabeth Strout.
- Amy and Isabelle (1998)
- Abide with Me (2006)
- Olive Kitteridge (2008)
- The Burgess Boys (2013)
- My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016)
- Anything is Possible (2017)
- Olive, Again (2019)
- Oh William! (2021)
- Lucy by the Sea (2022)
Links to three of my blogs in which I review short stories
Here are some of the reviews I’ve written about short stories and novels written as linked short stories.
Murmurations, by Carol Lefevre (linked short stories)
The Smokehouse, by Melissa Manning (linked short stories)
If You’re Happy by Fiona Robertson (short story collection)
I highly recommend the books of this five-star writer. They’re suitable for anyone who enjoys literature or easily accessible fiction. Students could learn much from all aspects of the writing of Elizabeth Strout. Book club members would also enjoy Strout’s many-layered stories.
Something a bit different
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Thank you. MH