Who Says You Have To Like A Character? The title character of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge is a confused and vindictive wife and mother in a small town on the coast of Maine.

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Who Says You Have To Like A Character?

Who Says You Have To Like A Character?

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Melissa Bank is the author of The Wonder Spot and The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. She lives in Manhattan, where almost every night she orders an R-5 — that's Revolution Diet Number 5 — vegetables and tofu, from Empire Szechuan. She calls and says, "This is Melissa," and whoever answers says, "Same thing?" Marion Ettlinger hide caption

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Marion Ettlinger

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 whom you can't stop reading about: Her name is Olive Kitteridge, and she's the title character of Elizabeth Strout's book of short stories.

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."

Olive is 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 also 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.

Olive Kitteridge is a masterpiece: 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, 'I can't say that.' Why? Because I imagined the whole town hearing about it on NPR.

If I sound insane about this book, it's because I am. 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:

It's a book that prevents you from going to sleep at a reasonable hour, that lifts you up and out of the subway, 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.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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