“Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 2019. 304 pages.
Few people, fictional or otherwise, make me cringe like Olive Kitteridge does. When I read any of the linked stories in “Olive, Again,” a new collection of fiction by Elizabeth Strout, I stop thinking of Olive as a character in a book. She is real to me, her blunt candor a force I do not at first find charming or endearing, as many do, but that is, eventually, irresistible and cause for deep thought.
Rooted in New England sensibilities, Olive has traits we know. She would be one to speak her mind at town meeting or say what she thinks at the coffee shop regardless of who overhears. That’s the power of Olive Kitteridge. She says what she thinks. If there’s anything amusing about her, it’s the magnetism with which she draws people to her in spite of her rough edges. Says her second husband Jack Kennison as he considers her attraction, “She had an honesty - was it an honesty? - she had something about her.” He liked the “Olive-ness” of her and thought, “Olive Kitteridge. Tall, big; God she was a strange woman.”
Elizabeth Strout’s first book about Olive, “Olive Kitteridge,” was published in 2008. The work was honored with a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a popular HBO mini-series that was filmed on Massachusetts’ North Shore and Cape Ann in 2013. “Olive, Again,” this recent collection of linked short stories set in Crosby, Maine, takes up the small matters of everyday life from multiple points of view. Some of the short stories merely reference Olive while others are told from her point of view. She is the hub throughout, structurally and spiritually - disdained, appreciated, loveable by some, life-changing.
“Olive, Again,” is nonetheless Olive, exiting. The book tracks Olive as she ages and moves through relationships, health issues and residences. Strout is remarkable for the way she brings readers the story of aging in all its big and small parts, expressed by its characters in moments of loneliness, terror and occasions of happiness. The insights range from small and obvious to profound and surprising. Foremost are issues of identity, regret, wisdom and day-to-day life as it is lived in the later years.
Strout wins over her readers’ admiration, also, in how she evokes everyday life. Her writing provides opportunities for identification with characters and events. Details of the daily interactions characters experience and respond to are spot on. We recognize the precision of the storytelling and we note how there is no pause button. Bad things happen. Bad things pass.
For example, after a good day spent on an excursion in Maine, where they lived, Jack and Olive unexpectedly run into Elaine, Jack’s former lover while married to his first wife. Elaine was the cause of his premature retirement from teaching at Harvard after she went to the administration with charges of sexual harassment. After seeing her in the public setting of a restaurant so many years later, Jack realizes Elaine had been a careerist who had engineered the affair, the $300,000 payout and advancement in her teaching profession. Driving home with Olive, all these realizations begin to sink in.
“… as he drove along the river without seeing anything except the white line in the road, it returned to him, the fact that Olive was his wife, and that they had had a day together of happiness before seeing Elaine tonight. But it did not feel like happiness that he had experienced with Olive, it felt far away from him now. And so the day they had had together folded over on itself, was done with, gone. In the silence of the dark car Jack was aware of Olive - his wife - aware of her presence in a way that felt insurmountable.”
Despite how crushing the truth of Elaine’s devious behavior was, despite how much he missed his first wife, Jack understood well that “… he knew, even tonight in his grief, that his marriage to Olive had been surprisingly wonderful in many ways, to go into old age with this woman who was so - so Olive.”
When reading “Olive, Again,” we appreciate what Strout’s characters have to show us about life, aging and acceptance. The experience is both unsettling and entertaining. As for our embrace of Olive, we do more than condone her candor, we celebrate it and maybe even advocate for more of it in the dailiness of our own lives.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.