Short Story Cycles

My review of A Companion to the Works of Elizabeth Strout

(Please see this entry for more about the book.)

The review:

So the world has finally received a solid academic monograph about Elizabeth Strout’s works, which, as far as I know, is the first of its kind. The author, Katherine Montwieler, explains in the introduction that scholarly analyses often neglect important themes that are prominent in Strout’s books, including affinity, affect, connection, emotion, and engagement. Montwieler’s book aims to address this issue, and I can certainly get behind that project!

After the intro, follows a thorough analysis of each of Strout’s publications from Amy and Isabelle and until Oh, William. For each book a plethora of themes are dealt with, from Strout’s concern with trauma, motherhood, identity, relations to our children (and children’s relations to their parents), faith and much more. Depending on your reason for picking up this book they might all be of interest, but the somewhat fuzzy quality of empathy is once again the red thread in Montwieler’s analysis. For Strout’s force is that she writes to let the reader share the experiences of her characters and invite readers to recognize the importance of understanding others without idealizing them.

For example, the book highlights how Strout’s writing deals with:

  • the distance between people and the small indignities of life.
  • overcoming the pains and challenges of motherhood but without necessarily being ‘saved’ or ‘redeemed’ over becoming ‘complete’ as a woman
  • coming to terms with traumatic past and understanding family legacies.
  • characters with particular foibles and frailties

… and more, but in each situation characters are generally presented to the reader in ways that are simultaneously empathetic and engaging.

It was in fact this ephemeral quality of writing that originally drew me to Elizabeth Strout’s books (starting like so many others with Olive Kitteridge). But in later years, and while experimenting with my own writing of short stories, I became more and more interested in the ‘craft’—what is it that makes Strout’s stories ‘work’? How can we analyze this powerful feeling of why we are captivated by Strout’s stories?  I think this book will appeal to all academics in the humanities who are interested in this very question and who may even combine scholarly studies with their own writing. 

My own academic background is the social sciences and the writing came later. It was in conjunction with my own writing that I fell in love with the form of the short story cycle (or linked short story collection) which Strout masters in Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again and Anything Is Possible. (Arguably her other Lucy Barton books are also a kind of ‘cycle’—taken as a whole—but that is another discussion.) So naturally I was interested in what Montwieler had to say about the form, and if she could link it (no pun intended) to Strout’s writing qualities and major thematic preoccupations.

And, yes, Montwieler highlights this area of interest but it is not her focus, probably since Strout is writing more than ‘just’ short story cycles. But KW does call attention to how, for example, in Olive Kitteridge Strout’s use of the form of the short story cycle emphasizes the characters’ inability to understand the facts of their own history objectively and yet still end up with an understanding of life as a whole. Thus, characters misremember and misunderstand events, and therefore their perceptions of the world around them are continually disrupted, just as they are for the reader. But as Montwieler rightly argues: “If facts are elusive, we can use narrative to understand the world, others, and ourselves … Storytelling, [Strout] shows us, offers us a chance to inhabit the world of others, to realize the myopia of our own perspective, to listen rather than to already know.”

The book’s weakest part for me was the long interview with Elizabeth Strout in the appendix. Montwieler does her best, but, as in other interviews, Strout is joyfully evasive about what ‘makes her writing work’. I honestly don’t think she is particularly concerned with that type of reflection at all! As I understand her process, it is—as with so many other writers—much more about doing and feeling than reflecting and thinking. It is about sitting down, starting with a blank page, and perhaps some random inspiration and then writing scenes only. As Strout says, “at some point things will come together, and many parts of the so-called plot don’t show up until the very end. It’s kind of weird, really.” 

Yes, well, I know the feeling and I guess that perhaps that is part of the point. This impressive book by Katherine Montwieler will bring more focus to an author like Strout and her unique qualities as a writer. But while the work’s individual analyses certainly do a valuable job of explaining just why an Elizabeth Strout story can be so captivating, at the end of the day there is a limit to how granular you can go in your research of Strout’s methods and motives. You have to experience it yourself by reading the books and discover what effect they have on you. As Strout herself quips in the final interview, “In truth, I would like my readers to know nothing about me! Hahahaha … I would like only the text of my work to rise off the page to them; anything they need to know about me as a person is just not relevant, I am in all my work.”

Perhaps that is as it should be, but if you – whether you be a literary researcher or just a ‘fan’ – are tempted to discover more layers in the stories of Olive Kitteridge, the Burgess Boys and Lucy Barton then A Companion to the Works of Elizabeth Strout is a great, great starting point.


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