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Who Says You Have To Like A Character?

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.