The Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar: "Olive Kittredge" Featuring the Author Elizabeth Strout April 25-26, 2014

This year marks the 11th annual Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar. Sponsored by the W&L Class of 1951 in honor of its classmate Tom Wolfe, the program annually features a writer of contemporary note. Last year's program, "New Ways of Knowing: Novelist as Journalist / Journalist as Novelist," featured Jennifer Egan and her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. This year's seminar will feature Elizabeth Strout and the novel that earned her the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Olive Kitteridge. Other works by Strout include her much admired first novel Amy and Isabelle, Abide with Me, and her most recent novel, The Burgess Boys.

"Elizabeth Strout animates the ordinary with astonishing force," wrote The New Yorker in describing Strout's Olive Kitteridge. A collection of 13 short narratives bound together by the presence of a vividly drawn central character, Olive Kitteridge focuses on a single small town in Maine. At one level, the novel shows how lives in a single community are at once interwoven and universal. At the same time, it shows how a single, tender yet curmudgeonly main character is profoundly affected by a range of familiar circumstances and individuals. Through Strout's skillful writing, Olive Kitteridge presents not only an extraordinary variety of vividly drawn characters but also a remarkable portrait of a compassionate yet often ruthlessly honest central figure, a retired teacher who must endure the changes in her community as well as her own family. A reviewer in The Boston Globe writes "Olive Kitteridge is an often-painful book to read because of its insistence on life's sharper realities, but that is precisely what makes it such a gratifying stunner." While each of the 13 chapters within the novel is a well-crafted story, the stories within Olive Kitteridge ultimately coalesce into a brilliantly constructed and cohesive work of fiction, one that chronicles Olive's evolving awareness and acceptance of what life has offered her.

Joining Elizabeth Strout in the program are Marc Conner, associate provost and popular Alumni College lecturer, and Karla Murdock, professor of psychology. Each will discuss Olive Kitteridge from a variety of perspectives. Is Olive an admirable character? Does the separate narrative format of the book disqualify it as a novel? And what does the novel say about contemporary life, about the way we live now? The discussion of these questions and more should make for a most stimulating seminar.

Elizabeth Strout: Photo by Leonardo Cendamo