Six Reasons Elizabeth Strout Is Your Soul Mate


I know I’m behind the times on this one. Elizabeth Strout’s most recent novel/story collection hybrid, Olive Kitteridge, was published eons ago, in 2008 (back then I was too busy cheering on wholesome golfer Tiger Woods and trying to purchase Michael Jackson concert tickets to take note). But today I finally finished reading the trifecta of Strout novels, and I’ve got the scoop on what you need to know about their author: she has written three gorgeous novels (Oprah made the first one into a movie; the third won a Pulitzer), her books are populated with the difficult but want-to-be-loved characters in small-town Maine, and she is your freaking soul mate.

Here are the reasons you two are destined to be together:

1. She wrote her first novel, Amy & Isabelle, in secret.

If this is not the most adorably modest thing you’ve ever heard, then you have obviously not met a lot of fiction writers. When we’re writing a novel, it’s all we talk about. So when you find a writer who will sit and listen to you talk about your day without ever mentioning that she’s having trouble with a particular plotline and would like your advice? Marry her.

2. She’s a lawyer, too.
Meaning she has a law degree. Meaning if the novelist thing stops working out, she’s got a Plan B. Writers with a Plan B are also exceedingly rare and should be taken out to dinner and a movie immediately.

Fig. A

3. She rocks the windswept look in her author photo.
You want your Life Partner to exhibit a good combination of humility (see #1) and total rockstar badassness. See Figure A for an illustration of this.

4. This sentence.

Even keeping in mind how this kind of autumn day can be an awful thing, harsh and sharp as broken glass, the sky so blue it could break down the middle, the day was perfectly beautiful, too.

And this is from her second novel, Abide with Me, the one critics described as “meh.” So bear in mind that the sentence above—with its delicate positioning of abstract language with the literal and figurative sharpness of broken glass, its easy and elegant remark on the nonexistence of absolute truth, its encoded dharma talk on the nature of relative awareness—that this is pretty mediocre, in terms of your soul mate’s narrative capabilities. For the more critically acclaimed Strout sentences, you will need to put on sunglasses and possibly a diaper.

5. She’s a magician with point of view.
One of the most difficult parts about crafting a good novel is figuring out who is going to tell the story. And if you pick more than one protagonist, it’s a pickle to switch from one consciousness to another. Most writers, when faced with this problem, utilize chapter breaks to compartmentalize: Chapter 1 told by Benjy, Chapter 2 by Quentin, etc. The most difficult thing a writer can do is switch points of view in mid-scene. But Elizabeth Strout likes a challenge—she eats challenges for brunch—as evidenced by this paragraph from Amy & Isabelle:

Isabelle Goodrow simply sat at her desk with her knees together, her shoulders back, and typed away at a steady pace. Her neck was a little peculiar. For a short woman it seemed excessively long, and it rose up from her collar like the neck of the swan seen that summer on the dead-looking river, floating perfectly still by the foamy-edged banks.

Or, at any rate, Isabelle’s neck appeared this way to her daughter, Amy, a girl of sixteen that summer, who had taken a recent dislike to the sight of her mother’s neck…

What’s remarkable about this transition is the way it employs an omniscient view as the hinge between two close third-person points of view: the swan is being recalled by the collective voice of the community in which Amy and Isabelle live and in which the swan’s dead body was “seen.” And within this neutral sentence there is the shift: the object of the paragraph (Isabelle’s neck) is now being viewed by Amy. This shifting strategy is used throughout the novel, and HAVE YOU BOUGHT THIS WOMAN A DIAMOND YET?

6. She is really nice IRL.
I went to a quiet AWP panel last year to see Strout read a portion of Olive Kitteridge. She was amazing, and lucky for me, her leg was broken, so I was able to overtake her afterwards as she was hobbling toward the exit. There, in the dim light of a Hilton conference room, I bared my soul: I told her that I was so moved by her work that I was probably going to unconsciously copy her entire oeuvre during my lifetime as a fiction writer. And you know what? She simply smiled and said, “All my best stuff is borrowed from somewhere, too.” And she wrote a nice note in my book, with several exclamation points, before limping off to the next panel.

All rights reserved to Andrea Uptmor.

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