One thing that's been high on my priority list this year is rereading novels-in-stories that I think were very successful and trying to understand what made them work where others fail. I already know that a big problem I have with some novels-in-stories is that there are often pieces that feel more like vignettes or filler than stand-alone stories, or seem to force character storylines that don't work. So how do books that succeed avoid those pitfalls, among others?
To me, Olive Kitteridge has been the gold standard of novels-in-stories. I've read it multiple times already and sat down to dig in more intently. But you know what, that's hard to do; the book is so good, even though I've read it before, that I get swept away in the story and characters and don't pay attention to particulars.
Fortunately, I have a friend who's working on a memoir and also reading memoirs with the same purpose, and same problem. She quotes writer Kate St. Vincent Vogl, who addressed my friend's concerns about book structure and time movement by suggesting she take a book she admires and outline it, study it to figure out how the author put it together. Why does each section go next to the one it does? Why are there pauses in certain places? What makes the book tick?
So that's what I'm doing, starting with Olive Kitteridge and moving forward to other novels-in-stories that I admire. I read each page with a notebook at hand, stopping frequently to make notes about the stories themselves and how they, and the characters within them, work together. It's a much slower way of reading, but it's proving to be very enlightening. I suspect a book like Olive Kitteridge would yield new insights with multiple re-readings, notebook still at hand. And the really beautiful thing? It doesn't at all detract from my appreciation and love for the book, but only increases it.