On “Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout
“I never intended to return to Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout said in a recent interview with The New Yorker. “I really thought I was done with her, and her with me. Then one day, while Strout was sitting in a European cafe, his tough and lovable character came to life. Olive kitteridge didn’t want a sequel, but the result – charming, fun, and always surprising – is a sequel worthy of the original. Olive has aged and she, along with residents of the fictional hamlet of Crosby, Maine, is grappling with a changed world. Just like in Updike Rabbit series, a change of weather changes everything.
Olive kitteridge is a gorgeous 2008 storybook novel (and a stellar HBO miniseries) that portrays the life of a woman whose deep humanity is often obscured by her pain. Her father died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, her platonic lover in a car crash, and she raged against her husband, Henry, and her son, Christopher. In a memorable scene that takes place on Christopher’s wedding day, Olive, after hearing a derisive comment, steals a bra and a shoe from her stepdaughter and degrades one of her sweaters as a sort of curse on their wedding. Still, in nicer moments, she tries to care for an anorexic girl in town and counsels a boy who is considering suicide. She is impulsive and rude but also deeply moral.
Olive kitteridge ends with Henry’s death and the beginnings of an awkward romance with wealthy Maine transplant recipient Jack Kennison. Olive, again picks up soon after, and follows our curmudgeonly antihero through the twilight of his life.
From the first chapters – which, as in Olive kitteridge, are standalone short stories – Strout creates the Olive his fans have been waiting for, doing good while growling all the way. And as usual in Strout stories, the profession is virtuoso and often risky. A seed planted in the first few pages – often a bit of gossip or a retrospective observation – pays off on the last turn. The point of view changes unexpectedly or jumps forward or backward in time. Surprises fly away but still have a crazy meaning. Family secrets, sexual and violent, emerge in moments of wild intensity.
But the prose in Olive, again is more relaxed than the firecracker descriptions, finely tuned ellipses, and clever jokes of its predecessor. It’s a more peaceful novel, telling more about the after-effects than the crises.
The common theme in almost all of the storylines is aging. Who ages gracefully, and who becomes “dopey-dope” (Olive’s phrase) or dies young? How to deal with the indignities of “poopie pants” and forced hospital stays? When is it time to give up the car keys or move to the assisted living facility? And, more deeply, what can we glean from his life in retrospect? “Who were they, who were they?” Olive reflects during one of the book’s many contemplative moments. “And who – who in the world – was she?”
This older olive is sweeter, or at least its beards contain less venom. She recognizes her weaknesses. She tries to be a good grandmother to her son’s four children, although, as we see on a poignant visit from her son’s family, she’s not particularly generous. She tries to let Jack spend his money without judging him. She still volunteers as a confidante for those in the city facing death. For example, after seeing Cindy Coombs, a former student of hers who now has cancer, at the grocery store, Olive begins to visit her to talk about mortality.
Its interior landscape is also sweeter – and the reader is granted a new intimacy with it. The first Olive was bitter and resentful; it is overflowing with panic, regret and a certain acceptance. As she weakens and her friends die, she reckons with the life she’s lived: was she a good wife? Was she a good mother? What did she learn? Whenever she thinks about these questions, she doesn’t know if she is satisfied with the answers.
About Henry, Olive says to Cindy, “But I’m just saying I wasn’t particularly nice to him, and it hurts me now.” He really Is. Sometimes these days – rarely, very rarely, but sometimes – I feel like I’ve become, oh, just a little – little – a little better as a person, and it makes me sick than Henry don’t have any of that from me. “
And after the disastrous visit from her son’s family, Olive realizes that she had been a terrible mother.
It came to her then with a horrible hiss of the crescendo of truth: she had failed on a colossal level. She must have failed for years and not realize it. She didn’t have a family like the others. […] As she sat across from Jack – stunned – she felt like she had lived her life blind.
These moments are particularly satisfying because they are very delayed. But sometimes his straightforward introspection goes beyond the bounds of credibility. The Olive Olive kitteridge blamed others for his shortcomings. This Olive is almost masochistic in her ability to flay herself.
Olive kitteridge is not just a novel about a woman in a small town; it’s a novel about how a small town shapes and suffocates its inhabitants. While about half of the stories are told from Olive’s perspective, the narrative ramblings follow other Crosby residents: the restaurant pianist who was donned by a married man, a woman who discovers her betrayal. husband at a glance at a concert, a wife afflicted with the urge to shoplift after the death of her father, a wife who was abandoned at the altar. These characters, trapped by their circumstances (and limited by limited men), attempt to live more broadly – and the stories resonate with those of Olive: her wasted potential and her frustration with Henry vibrate every time she appears in the movie. novel.
Olive, again follows that same pattern, pinning the drama and heartbreak of other residents into the story of Olive’s Twilight Years. In some of these stories, the characters struggle to understand the mysteries of loved ones and strangers; in others, the book juxtaposes parents and children, revealing how traumas mutate and resurface a generation later. These themes are repeated in Olive’s own struggles to understand herself, Jack and Henry, and Christopher.
The traumatic themes of Olive, again are also reminiscent of Strout’s most recent verse, the novel My name is Lucy Barton and the collection of short stories Everything is possible. The first is an elusive first-person confessional from a writer with a tacit (and indescribable) past. In the latter, this novel is revealed to be a memoir passed down by friends and family of Lucy, whose traumas are almost unbearable.
The surprise of Lucy Barton appearing in Everything is possible is repeated in Olive, again, but in a more casual way. In a chapter titled “Exiles,” Jim, Bob and Susan Burgess – the siblings of Strout’s 2013 novel The Burgess Boys – meet in nearby Shirley Falls and revisit old class conflicts and childhood tragedy. Olive has a role to play at a seaside art show, dismissing the paintings as “crap” – and it is revealed that Bob Burgess and his wife know her. Elsewhere, Isabelle Goodrow from Amy and Isabelle, Strout’s debut in 1998, brings comfort and contrast to Olive in the book’s last act. Both chapters serve as an oblique coda for these novels, and they wrap these familiar Strout characters in the question of how lives change with age. In a sense, Olive, again becomes an umbrella suite, not just for Olive kitteridge but at The Burgess Boys and Amy and Isabelle, too much.
When Helen Burgess and Isabelle Goodrow bump into Olive, the shock of interdependence is delicious. The sense of community that permeates Strout’s writing feels even more expansive when her novels converge, when the different Maines she has portrayed with exquisite specificity are revealed to be the same. It is as if Strout was telling his readers that his mission in writing these books was singular: to portray in luminous detail the messy, secretive and consistent life of the inhabitants of a small town.
Jonathan Vatner is the author of Carnegie Hill, a novel published in August 2019 by Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Presse. He is an award-winning journalist who wrote for The New York Times; O, Oprah magazine; Poets and writers; and many other publications.