Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Olive, Again - Elizabeth Strout

In the last few years, Elizabeth Strout has quietly worked her way onto my list of favorite authors. Strout has now published seven books in all, but I had not read her work until I picked up The Burgess Boys, a book I found almost stunning in its insights into the human soul, in early 2013. That put Strout on my radar for good and resulted in me reading her next three books (My Name Is Lucy Barton, Anything Is Possible, and Olive, Again) almost as soon as they were published. Strout is not a particularly prolific author, so the good news is that I still have her first three novels, including her 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, waiting to be read.

Olive, Again is a collection of thirteen chronologically-ordered short stories that revisit the life and world of one of the most memorable fictional characters of the twenty-first century, Olive Kitteridge. Olive is front and center in some of the stories, and in others she makes only a cameo appearance or two, but all of the stories take place in and around Crosby, Maine, the seaside town that Olive calls home. Even the Burgess boys (of the novel of the same name) and their sister have a story of their own that shows that although they are older, they haven’t really changed all that much.

The stories age Olive another dozen years or so, bringing her well into her eighties by the end of the book. Not surprisingly, Olive is still the same feisty, blunt-speaking spirit that she’s always been, but as the years go by she is starting to second-guess herself a little. She’s even making a conscious effort to treat people better than she has in the past, something that does not come easy to her.

Strout prepares us for a different side of Olive in the book’s very first story, “Arrested,” a story in which we meet Jack, Olive’s eventual second husband. Jack yearns to reconnect with Olive because he misses what he calls her “honesty,” a quality that others are more likely to call her rudeness. Jack just may be the perfect man for Olive at this stage in their lives. Only time will tell – and it does. Many of the following stories chronicle the aging process in Olive, and how she adapts, or doesn’t adapt, to each stage of losing a little more of the physical and mental prowess she once prided herself on. But there are also stories about other people, many of them former students in Olive’s seventh-grade math class, who live in or visit little Crosby, Maine. Regardless of who they are now and what they are doing, almost all of them know or remember Olive well. She was that kind of a force in Crosby.

My favorite comic moment in the stories appears in one called “Exiles” during which a New York visitor has just purchased a small painting at a Crosby street fair so that she doesn’t appear to be a snob to her sister-in-law. That’s just when Olive (in a brief cameo appearance) walks by:

            “As Helen took the painting and turned to go, she bumped into a tall big old woman who was saying loudly to the man she was with, ‘God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.”

Helen is briefly introduced to Olive, and as Olive leaves this happens:

            “The woman (Olive) said, ‘Well.’ She pointed a finger at the painting Helen held. ‘You enjoy that,’ and she turned around, waiving a hand over her head as she and the man walked past the two of them.”

Elizabeth Strout
Olive, Again, though is not a comedic look at aging unless the reader has a very dark sense of humor. Rather, it is a frank look at what the sudden realization that each day is likely to be a little more difficult than the one that preceded it does to a person. Olive Kitteridge is a fighter, a very strong woman who has never backed down from anything or anyone in her life. But even Olive is struggling as she learns to cope with what is, and what is still to come. She is getting there, though, even if she is learning some painful things about herself, like the admittance she makes to herself at the end of a story called “Motherless Child:”

            “But she saw behind her closed eyes the house, and inside her was a shiver that went through her bones. The house where she had raised her son – never, ever realizing that she herself had been raising a motherless child, now a long, long way from home.”

Or this realization from “Friend:”

            “It was herself, she realized, that did not please her.”

            “I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.”

It seems that the more that Olive learns about herself, the less she understands about herself and how she has impacted the lives of everyone around her, be it for the good or for the bad, for so long.

Bottom Line: Olive, Again is as brilliant an account of the aging process and its impact on people’s opinion of themselves as it is a final accounting of the life of its main character, a woman no one will ever forget if they have met her on the pages of Olive Kitteridge or Olive, Again.


  1. I've been meaning to read Olive Kitteridge since it came out. Meanwhile...ten years later...I still haven't gotten around to it. I don't know what that says about me except my TBR list is too long, and I obviously tend towards bookish procrastination. :D

    1. I haven't read Olive Kitteridge yet, either, but I watched the HBO miniseries based on the book and I fell in love with the character. Olive, Again is really a great book. I know that short stories are not everyone's thing, but this one could just as easily be called a novel and no one would much object.

  2. Like Lark, I still haven't read Olive Kitteridge. Now may be the time. Then I can look at Olive, Again. Thanks, Sam, for the reminder. :)

    1. I think that "Olive, Again" is a real masterpiece, Jenclair. It's well worth the wait...but don't forget about it.