She is most definitely a fearsome woman. This has to be her defining characteristic and the abiding impression that the other members of her community have of her. A former elementary school teacher she appears in several stories simply as that: a fleeting mention of the memory of a fearsome character from the childhood of whoever the story happens to concern. Olive is already old, in her early seventies, and the only thing you know of her earlier life is that she inspired fear; not respect or affection or admiration, but fear.
The front cover asks the question, "What will you make of her?" I am not sure I have an answer to that. She is quite the most impenetrable character I have ever read about. You see her relationship with her husband, and with her son and with some of the people in her community, not necessarily friends, just people she knows, but you learn far more about them than you do about Olive. I have just one quote that I felt, as soon as I read it, sums her up. Her husband Henry brings her some flowers and hugs her, and then "She stood, waiting for the hug to end." (story entitled Tulips, p.146) I could actually see her, stood there, not stiff and resisting, just polite and uncomprehending, as if she was not quite sure what a hug was. To put it bluntly this woman gives very little away, especially affection. I think that what you most notice about good writing is that you don't notice it. You don't trip over clumsy phrases or get irritated by boring or, alternatively, pretentious vocabulary. It just flows off the page without having to struggle or finding yourself picking fault with the way things are said. So you don't get the impression with this book that it is some kind of clumsy device that Olive appears (even most passingly) in all of these stories, and although it doesn't read quite like a novel it also doesn't read like a collection of discrete stories either. I like the book mostly because I like 'small town america' type fiction. I went through a bit of an Anne Tyler phase a couple of years ago and what they have in common is the very ordinariness of the people and their lives.
I would definitely highly recommend this book. It is about, as much as anything else, old age, and the process of reflection. In fact now I think back many of the characters are looking back on what was and what might have been, and what is and how it got that way. Possibly not one to go with if you are already feeling a bit melancholy but one to provoke much thought. The book apparently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The list of somewhat longer than the Orange Prize list so I am not planning to try and tackle it, but there are certainly a few more suggestions there that I will come back to in the future.