I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction. This will be the fourth post on Bookword focusing on her books, and the fifth novel of hers that I have read. Some of my admiration comes from the characters she draws, especially older women, and the situations she creates for them. Some of it comes from her style of writing, especially her dialogue. And some from the format she has chosen for Olive: interlinked short stories. I know other readers find her work hugely enjoyable too.
This will also be the 48th in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. This book returns us to small towns in Maine, USA and to the character first introduced in 2008, Olive Kitteridge.
In the final episodes of the previous book Olive had recently been widowed and had met Jack – a Republican to her horror – with whom she became friendly and ultimately intimate. Early on in this novel they are married. This collection of stories take us through the years of her second marriage and widowhood and into old age and its terrors.
We are shown small town East Coast American life, with its controlling gossip, unspoken standards and long memories. Change is also a feature. Mostly we are in Crosby but a nearby town, Shirley Falls, has been ‘overrun’ by ‘Somalians’, and the mills have closed and been demolished. Nothing is the same.
Many of the characters were taught Maths (Math) by Olive Kitteridge, and the image of her formed during this time endures. She was harsh, distant with occasional flashes of wisdom for her students. Teacher and students meet from time to time, the young people now adults, and some of them benefit from her observations about people’s suffering and her lapses into kindness. The distress of a young woman unable to choose butter in a supermarket is noticed by Olive, who helps her make her purchases, sees her home and visits when no one else does, for the woman is undergoing chemotherapy.
Memories are long-lasting. So is some damage. And Olive’s relationship with her adult son has never been good. They fell out badly when Olive went on a visit to New York to stay with his family, as revealed in Olive Kitteridge. Now he visits with his new wife and the visit again does not go well.
It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth. She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. […] And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had cause this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? (91)
The reader is perhaps more observant than Olive. We see her clumsiness with people, her abruptness and her kindness. We see how she pushes people away, expects obedience from children, speaks truth rather than tact. And we see that people hold onto their images of her. She is intelligent rather than warm and does not conform to small town social regulation.
In some stories Olive makes only a small appearance, always in character but sometimes it feels too engineered. But the theme of class hierarchies and poverty continue through each story, as people learn to live with each other and the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives.
Ultimately Olive loses her second husband, the man who had loved her ‘Oliveness’. And she becomes old and even more lonely, has a heart attack and becomes dependent upon others.
At one point she meets Crosby’s own national poet in a coffee shop and because she is lonely Olive tells her about her life. (Later she find the conversation published as a poem in a magazine.) She tries to attract the waitress’s attention and then explains why being invisible can be liberating:
“It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing about that. […] I don’t think I can explain this well. But you go through life thinking you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see” – Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee – “that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.” (204)
The format of the linked short stories allows Elizabeth Strout to show her protagonist both close up and at a distance. The interweaving of the characters’ lives and events reflect small town life. Everyone has their dilemmas and difficulties, and some have catastrophes that pile up in an almost comic way. Some characters even appear from other novels (Amy and Isabelle for example)
I was struck by the dialogue in this book. The story called Helped is largely a phone conversation of a bereaved young woman, Suzanne, who is just learning the full story of her family and the family lawyer. He is kind and a good listener and their conversation gradually peels back the pain Suzanne experienced within her family, and his own family origins in Hungary. The ‘beats’ in the long scene of the phone call are carefully and effectively timed, and we leave the conversation seeing that they have given each other something important and human.
The characters are authentic in their complexity. They have doubts, contradictions, regrets and some take bold leaps. The attraction of Olive is in her authenticity. She is a large woman, prone to dismissing people with a casual wave of her hand and to making judgements about them. But she also has insight and compassion for the lives of others. In the final pages she reflects on her own life and her approaching death.
It was herself, she realised, that did not please her. (289)
She concludes in this way:
I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing. (289)
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, published in hardback by Viking, Penguin in 2019. The paperback is due out in November 2020. Thanks to Anne for the lend.
Links to related reviews
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (on Bookword June 2016)
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)
JacquieWine’s review of Olive, Again appeared on her blog in November 2019.
See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.