Recently I finished reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and am half way through her novel, The Burgess Boys. As I read, I am pulled, bodily, into the character’s world. The people who populate her novels are not always (often not) likable, but damn they are natural. Her books are full of scenes depicting every day moments that feel very real, like spying on neighbors, not reading fiction… A woman is humiliated during a discussion and feels heat spreading over her scalp. Siblings communicate over a family crisis and it feels both warm and strained. Reading these passages, I shout in my head – “so lifelike!” In Olive Kitteridge, there is a moment where a long-time couple is trapped in a dangerous situation, but soon the danger becomes the threat to their marriage as they say aloud the unspeakable things that have chafed at their own thoughts about the other for years. It feels devastating.
Even as I am enjoying Ms. Strout’s novels (and I plan to go buy the rest as soon as I’m finished with these Burgess brothers), there is another feeling pricking at the back of my mind. Jealousy. Her prose is so effortless, her observation so poignant, that I can only wish I were so talented.
HBO recently made Olive Kitteridge into a mini series, nominated for several golden globes. I have not seen it yet, despite my curiosity, and my enjoyment of all things Frances McDormand. Truth is, I’m afraid. Any time I read a book, then watch the screen adaptation too soon, the television images always supplant the experience of reading.
The summer after freshmen year of college I worked at a library, using the opportunity to consume the paperback stacks as well as the more slender DVD collection. It was my goal to spend the summer reading a succession of novels followed by watching the film versions. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, then Memoirs of a Geisha directed by Rob Marshall, and so on. I did this with several titles, but soon realized that, while often beautiful, fun, or intriguing, the movies always left me with a feeling different than the books. Obviously, fitting a two hundred page novel into a two hour film necessitated some abridgment, but the direct comparison left the former feeling like a meal and later like a snack.
So when it comes to Ms. Strout’s enveloping works, I chose to wait just a little longer to let her words cement themselves before I move on to the equal brilliance of Ms. McDormand.