OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout is a "novel" of short stories, some of which have appeared in magazines like the New Yorker and Ms. The stories tell of small-town Maine residents who all struggle with relationships and, really, the quest to feel known. Each story can and could stand alone, but the book doesn't read like a collection of separate works, but rather as a description of people of a common place (Maisy Mills, Maine), who all know a common character (Olive Kitteridge) and who all struggle with the fundamental problem of the author's theme, trying not to feel alone, completely alone.
Many of the stories do deal with Olive or her family directly, and we come to know her throughout the book, through her husband's experience of "crushing" on an employee in the first story to her own experiences as she ages and her life changes by the final story. But in other stories, she is a minor character, perhaps mentioned briefly as the main character's former math teacher in high school or as someone another character does not like.
And this aspect become fundamental and almost a secondary theme of the book. As Olive herself remembers her own serious flirtation with another man ("... she had the sensation that she had been seen. And she had not even known she'd felt invisible" [p. 213].), and progresses through later stages of life, we come to see that she is not perfectly lovable -- or perhaps not lovable at all, up close. But she still needs intimacy. "Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed" (p. 211). She is an emotional anti-hero, and through Strout's tender writing, we do love her.
One of my favorite stories was "Starving" which deals nimbly with all of these subjects, and doesn't feature Olive primarily. Strout's writing is straight-forward, but thoughtful and tender. These people became real to me. I miss them now that I have finished the book.