Olive Kitteridge has to be the best short story collections—best books--I've read in a long while, and one of the things I like about the book is that Olive is a flat out pain-in-the-ass. She’s a hard character to like, that Olive. Yes, we do know some of her inner turmoil and the myriad reasons for her being such a thorn in the side of her entire town, especially her son, but I like her. I like it that she just thinks, "For god's sake," all the time. I’m glad that she’s not sentimental or kind or even polite. That's what life is like. At every turn, we could look at someone close to us and say, "For God's sake."
She is an unlikeable character, one we wouldn't want to talk to much should we bump into her at the Safeway. If she were a relative, we, like her son, would move 3,000 miles away. Now and again, she does something amazing, like saving a girl who falls off a cliff or taking care of her incapacitated husband. But mostly, she’s angry. Author Elizabeth Strout has managed to bring us this unlikeable character in a collection of short stories, and people are reading it up with huge spoons.
I've written at least one novel with an unlikeable character. In my fourth novel, One Small Thing, the main character Avery is selfish and does things contrary to most people. She wants her life to happen when she wants it to happen and how. Readers complained about Avery being too selfish or acting not the way most women would. Avery is sharp, brittle, vulnerable, and angry, and constantly bitchy. But yet, all Avery wants is one small thing, a baby. And though my editor at the time wasn't keen on that bitchy aspect of the character, I took those comments as a compliment. I'd written a character who was unique, herself, and not me, or my readers.
But there is the question of writing a character or a story that is too sad or different or weird. The prevailing selling wisdom is that we want our characters wonderful and stories happy. To sell these tales, people can't die or make wrong choices. Of course, think of all your favorite novels, and there those two items are—death and bad choices. And yet, there my novel writing students are, clutching their sad first novel manuscripts to their chests, trying to get an agent to read the weird tale of a grumpy old woman with few redeeming qualities who says, “Oh, for God’s sake!”
I want to read the stories about people who are difficult. I want to read about people who are different than me, difficult in ways that I am not difficult (and trust me, I’m no walk in the park). Lord knows, I have met many troubled and yet interesting people during my time here on the planet. Grumpy people exist, and I want to read their stories, too. I want it all, bad and good, and it's nice that Olive is galumphing through town, saying, "For God's sake," showing me something that no one else in town can.
Who are your favorite un-favorites? What characters from books you’ve read do you love despite the prevailing wisdom that says you should shut the book and walk away?
She reaches out her hand, and feels something grab it. No, not something. Someone. And this someone’s grasp is warm and strong and firm. She lets her fingers slide a little against his palm feeling the smooth skin under hers. Smooth but also worked, as if he has been building something, calluses just below the start of each finger.
Ava wants to say something, to feel more than his hand. Maybe just a wrist. A forearm. But does she need to? She feels that she can already see his body, his skin a lovely gold, fine blonde hair covering his arms. His neck is strong, his shoulders broad, the muscles powerful, strong, well used. The hair on his head is blonde, too, and she can almost imagine reaching out to push a strand away from his face. His face . . . . his face. She cannot see his face, though now the rest of him is available to her eyes, and how she wants to stare, to gape, to take in every muscle, every plane of muscle and bone and flesh. She can imagine what all of him would feel like under her hands, smoothness and hardness. He would taste like sun and salt and citrus.
He is absolutely beautiful, an almost heat pulsing from him, a feeling mellow and lovely and golden. He reminds her of a cat—no, a lion, his energy strong and contained and hidden. She wants to lean into him, take him in her arms, feel all of him against all of her. But that’s not going to happen. Not in this dream and not ever. He’s going to leave her. She can feel it. He’s not going to be here for long.
No, she thinks, trying to hold on. No. Please don’t leave. Don’t leave me here alone. Don’t make me have another day like this one.
But it’s too late. He loosens his grasp, his fingers and then palm sliding away from hers, his figure disappearing right in front of her.
“Come back!” she cries into her dream. “Don’t leave!”
But he is leaving; he is already gone.
“Goodbye,” she whispers, the dream fading even as his palm still tingles on hers.
Make sure and leave Jessica a question or comment about her book/s because she will give away two sets of the entire trilogy (Being With Him, Intimate Beings and The Beautiful Being). Don't forget your email addy in the comment! Winners will be announced this weekend.