OLIVE, AGAIN By Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge doesn’t much like Betty, the “nursing aide” assigned to her after her heart attack. She dislikes Betty for the hostility with which she treats the other carer, a Somali woman. She dislikes her for her Republican bumper sticker. She really, really dislikes her for having dropped the cigarette butt that caused Olive to bend over, get dizzy and fall and subsequently decide she’d better move into sheltered housing. But when one day Betty shows up crying over the death of the headteacher on whom she had a crush, back when Olive was teaching her maths in high school, Olive softens. She hands her a Kleenex and asks about her life. “‘It sucks,” says Betty. Olive wants more. “Oh it’s just a life,” says Betty. “Olive thought about this. She said: ‘Well, it’s your life. It matters.’”
The town of Crosby, Maine, in which Elizabeth Strout set her acclaimed story-sequence-cum-novel Olive Kitteridge and now sets this sequel, Olive, Again, lies on a beautiful stretch of coast; it is remote, provincial, very far from centres of power or fashion or big business. It’s just a place, as Betty’s life (two disastrous marriages, brain-damaged son, dire poverty) is “just a life”, but Strout persuades us that Crosby matters, and so do its people.
It’s not only that this small town is the setting for high drama. Even though everyone knows everyone else’s business, murder, paedophilia, suicide, armed robbery, arson and hostage-taking all take place in Crosby, and so do heartbreak and true love. More important, though, than Crosby having its share of the stuff of which flashier drama is made, is Strout’s careful attention to the humdrum, quotidian experience that gradually accretes grandeur simply by dint of going on and on through decades. Banal loss (children growing up and moving away) becomes tragic, and the pleasure of a haphazardly begun new friendship between two incontinent old women seems as redemptive as romantic love.
Strout has been revisiting these themes in her meticulous realist fiction through half a dozen books now. They are all admirably accomplished, written with sharp-witted exactitude, if sometimes almost too spare. My Name Is Lucy Barton, from 2016, much admired by some, was too arid for my taste, its self-pitying heroine too unpleasant. But Strout can go emotionally large as well. In Olive Kitteridge she created a character so vital, so funny, so exasperating and yet so winning that Olive lights up a story even when she is only glimpsed in the distance, a hand waved over her head in her signature gesture.
When we first met her, in late middle age, Olive had no brakes, no filter. She said what she thought, without pausing to wonder how hurtful, or how wrong, she might be. Her husband Henry said to her once, not so much in reproach as in weariness, “I don’t believe you’ve ever once apologised. For anything.” Everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. Everyone else is stupid. “Stupid” is one of Olive’s favourite words. Another, expressive of her defensive dismissal of anything that makes her uneasy, is “phooey”. In the earlier book, a couple are at a concert when they see Olive come in with Henry. “I don’t know how he can stand her,” says the man. “He loves her,” says the woman. “That’s how he can stand her.” Readers love her too
Her story, the very opposite of the conventional coming-of-age narrative, is about the coming of age. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, published 11 years ago, we left her in her 70s, lying on a bed alongside a man, Jack, widowed like her, and as “old, big and sagging” as she was. “Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union – what pieces life took out of you.” As Olive, Again opens, only a month has passed. After a lot of predictable contrariness on Olive’s part, she and Jack manage to get together. And then Olive is once again alone.
These books are structured as collections of linked stories, but Strout’s publisher calls them novels. It might be more accurate to say they are the prose-narrative equivalent of a long-running TV drama series. Characters (many of them familiar from earlier books) step into the foreground to star in their own stories, then recede, to be glimpsed much later, their lives having moved on in the meantime. However you choose to classify them, though, the Olive collections have the amplitude and emotional subtlety of the most generously comprehensive novels. Within the span of these taut, laconic little tales there is room for characters to show feeling from several levels of their being – only some of which they are aware of. They develop. They change their minds. Olive herself says, tentatively, in one of the stories from this latest batch, that she thinks she may have become a bit nicer, and it’s true. She has. She grows old, as few fictional heroines do, while we witness the indignities, terrors and frustrations attendant on that process. Without labouring the point at all, for her authorial voice is always detached, never didactic, Strout shows how age has weakened what was most exasperating about Olive – her always-rightness, her irascibility – while leaving her bracing humour intact.
In one story she attends a baby shower. A young pregnant woman sits in a garlanded chair while her female friends give her the paraphernalia she is going to need when the baby is born. There is a lot of cooing and exclaiming as the presents – feeding bottles, tiny garments – are passed around. Olive gets increasingly irritable: the thing that drives her mad is the way the mother-to-be puts aside the ribbons off each pretty parcel, taping them to a paper plate. Is it the parsimony she can’t stand, or the time-wasting pernicketiness that prolongs the “stupid” ceremony, or the way the occasion forces her to contemplate her own failures as a mother? We aren’t told. Strout, beady-eyed, observes and records every fluctuation in Olive’s mood, but leaves us to interpret them.
Then one of the guests, another pregnant woman, goes into labour. Olive offers to drive her to hospital, but it is too late. “Olive stared. She was amazed. Pudendum went through her mind … What a thing!” From the commercialised silliness of a tacky modern rite to the contemplation of the body part Courbet called “the origin of the world” – Strout’s control of her narrative is so sure that she can manage the transition, deftly acknowledging its comedy, while allowing us as well to feel how moving is Olive’s inarticulate wonder. What a thing indeed!
These new stories confirm that in Olive Kitteridge, Strout has created one of those rare characters – think of Falstaff, Becky Sharp, James Bond – so vivid and humorous that they seem to take on a life independent of the story framing them. Talking to one of the other inmates in the sheltered accommodation where we leave her, Olive is struck when the other woman admits to arrogance. “Olive thought: By God, she’s honest.” Which means that they can be friends, because Olive, for all her wilful self-delusion, prizes truth above all things, and the author who created her is able to persuade us that, wrong as she often is, she is honest through and through.
#1 New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout continues the life of her beloved Olive Kitteridge, a character who has captured the imaginations of millions of readers.
Prickly, wry, resistant to change yet ruthlessly honest and deeply empathetic, Olive Kitteridge is "a compelling life force" (San Francisco Chronicle). The New Yorker has said that Elizabeth Strout "animates the ordinary with an astonishing force," and she has never done so more clearly than in these pages, where the iconic Olive struggles to understand not only herself and her own life but the lives of those around her in the town of Crosby, Maine. Whether with a teenager coming to terms with the loss of her father, a young woman about to give birth during a hilariously inopportune moment, a nurse who confesses a secret high school crush, or a lawyer who struggles with an inheritance she does not want to accept, the unforgettable Olive will continue to startle us, to move us, and to inspire moments of transcendent grace.
Elizabeth Strout is the author of several novels, including: Abide with Me, a national bestseller and BookSense pick, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England. In 2009 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book Olive Kitteridge. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker. She teaches at the Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University of Charlotte.
#Elizabeth Strout is such a keen observer of human nature, of our shared condition and she reminds us that life is full of a struggle of some kind for pretty much all of us. In Crosby, Maine you’ll find characters dealing with loneliness, infidelity, alcoholism, sickness, aging, death, regrets, so many regrets. Thankfully, there also is friendship and love and empathy that Olive Kittridge finds within herself to give, because the truths about life are dauntingly sad at times. More than once I stopped between stories to take a breath. This is Crosby, Maine, the small coastal town where our old friend Olive Kittridge lives. In reality it could be anywhere, but of course it wouldn’t be the same unless Olive was there. She’ll tell you exactly what she thinks about you in brutally honest words. She’s not the best wife or mother and honestly she can be pretty brash, but it becomes obvious, though, that in spite of the things she says she cares. I found at times her softer side, her more vulnerable side that aren’t alway evident. I can’t say I liked Olive very much when I started reading Olive Kitteridge, but by the end of that book I realized how many people she had positively impacted as a teacher and as a neighbor. And by the end of this book, I thought how lucky some of these characters were to have Olive in their lives and I felt for Olive as she endures her own challenges.
As in the first book, Strout skillfully weaves separate stories together, with Olive as the thread, but these books for me felt like novels. On the one hand it’s Olive’s story as she reaches her seventies and eighties . She’s older and maybe a little more self aware, but always trying to understand herself. She’s the center of a number of the stories and we come to know more about her as she comes to know more about herself. Some of the stories will give you that gut punch, when Olive comes to painful moments of recognition about her family, her friends and acquaintances and of course herself. In some of the stories she makes a real connection and engages with another character and only makes an appearance in others. Crosby and this book are populated with realistic characters, including Olive who are filled with fears, flaws, frailties that are easily recognizable in ourselves. What can I say about the writing, other than its impeccable. I felt the pull of these characters from the opening lines of pretty much every story. Strout is a fabulous story teller and is on my list of favorite writers. I definitely recommend that Olive Kitteridge be read first in order to fully appreciate the place in her life where Olive has come at the end of this book.
#No-one can write like the incomparable Elizabeth Strout, her understanding of what it is to be human and penetrate the beating heart of what comprises a community has a universality that cannot fail to resonate with the reader, sometimes perhaps uncomfortably so in the truths it lays bare, such as the physically and emotionally taxing process of ageing. Olive returns, maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely mine, indomitable, outspoken, cantankerous, a larger than life presence in the lives of those around her, an indisputably influential woman, even if it is sometimes in the slightest of appearances in the stories that pour forth about the community of Crosby, Maine, from the pen of Strout. Olive lives through her seventies and eighties, getting married for the second time to 74 year old Jack Kennison, who may find Olive irritating on occasion but loves Olive, all that she is, the two finding a companionship that eases the loneliness of losing their spouses and getting older.
Olive is aware of her shortcomings as a wife to Henry, she misses him, an ache that never disappears even as her life appears to move on, and as a mother to her son, Christopher, when his family come for a rare visit, there is a palpable awkwardness and a moment that opens her eyes as she perceives him as a motherless child, but, who as becomes apparent later, despite everything, loves her. We encounter a piano playing teenager who cleans homes, acquiring cash from a strange and silent transaction with a husband. A daughter cannot bear her inheritance from a morally bankrupt father and his profits from dubious investments in South Africa, she finds solace and faith in the company of her lawyer, Bernie. Bernie is finding it difficult to come to terms with many of his morally reprehensible clients, whose behaviour he has facilitated through the years. There is a family's conflict as it comes to terms with a daughter starring in a documentary of her life as a dominatrix. Strout does not shy away from darker aspects of community, such as the abuse, the toxic families, and the challenges of alcoholism, infidelity, cancer, and the feelings of despair, the pain, and the tears. Olive faces regret and loneliness, becoming considerably more self aware as she ponders over the mystery of who she is and the joys and wonder of love that can sprout from the most unexpected of places.
Strout is an exquisite storyteller, subtle and nuanced, who gets to core of a person and a community with a simplicity that is breathtaking, and does so with grace, humanity and compassion. Her portrait of Olive is outstanding, multilayered and complex, in the way she depicts Olive, getting older, more invisible, lonelier, but still striving to live, connect and learn, about herself and others. This is a profoundly moving novel, captivating in its portrayal of the everyday ordinariness and extraordinariness of its characters, an approach that packs a punch in its gut wrenching emotional honesty. Simply brilliant and highly recommended. Many thanks to Penguin UK for an ARC.
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Again