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Who Says You Have To Like A Character?
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Who Says You Have To Like A Character?
Who Says You Have To Like A Character?
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Author Melissa Bank was a darling of the literary world when her book "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" was published in 1999. She says that writing does not come easily to her, it's difficult and wrenching, but when those tough bouts hit a writer, there's always reading to fall back on for inspiration. And this year, she read a particular book and can't stop talking about it. Here's her pick for our series where authors talk about books they love, "You Must Read This."

Ms. MELISSA BANKS (Author, "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing"): Whenever people say they didn't like the main character of a book, they mean they didn't like the book. The main character has to be a friend? I don't get that.

Here's a perfect example of a character you'd never be friends with, but you can't stop reading about: Her name is Olive Kitteridge, and she's the main character of this book by Elizabeth Strout. Picture this - Olive on the day of her son's wedding. What is she doing? She's looking through her new daughter-in-law's closet. And she doesn't stop there. She takes a magic marker and draws a black line down the arm of a beige sweater. She steals a bra and one loafer. She imagines her new daughter-in-law saying, I must be losing my mind.

Here's a character who's as bad as you'd be, if you let yourself and that's partly what drives the book. You can't wait to see what she's going to do next. This is the story about people who live in a small town in Maine. People who might seem ordinary, but they're only as ordinary as we are. It might sound ordinary for a woman to find out her husband's cheating on her, but not if you're the woman and it's your husband.

You feel that way in every story. I think because you're privy not only to the characters' private lives but to their most intimate thoughts and to secrets they haven't told anyone. There's at least one secret in every story and one life-changing moment. Maybe that's why this book delivers what you hardly ever get in a literary novel - suspense. Take the story that begins with this sentence: "An awful thing happened to the Kitteridges on a chilly night in June."

In my opinion, "Olive Kitteridge" is a masterpiece. And what makes it a masterpiece is how it's done. The writing is so perfect, you don't even notice it; the story is so vivid, it's less like reading a story than experiencing it firsthand. Here's how real the characters are to me - while I was working on this essay, I caught myself withholding information about the characters to protect their privacy. I was writing about Olive's husband and his secret longing for another woman when I thought, well, I can't say that. Why? I imagined the whole town hearing about it on NPR.

If I sound insane about this book, it's because I am insane about this book. I'm willing to do almost anything to get you to read it. Not because the book deserves to be read - though it does - but because if you're like me, "Olive Kitteridge" is the book you're always looking for - a book that prevents you from going to sleep at a reasonable hour, that lifts you up and out of the subway, a book that gives you a double life to lead and changes the life you're in. "Olive Kitteridge" is a book that will remind you of how much you love to read.

SIEGEL: Melissa Bank is the author of "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing" and "The Wonder Spot." She lives in New York City. You can find the whole list of "You Must Read This" at npr.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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