Tag Archives: small town America

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

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. 

Olive, Again

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.

paperback version

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.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford

This is a post from a writer friend of mine, orginally posted on the Global Literature in Libraries blog. Like many writers Annie is a reader and her choice is a contribution to the theme of older women who thwart expectations. Eleanor Bannister might be expected to have an unadventurous retirement. Indeed she appears to expect it of herself. But that would be to under-estimate this older woman as Annie reveals.

Eleanor and Abel 

In this small town America older women are expected to work for the church, give charity lunches and continue to do their bit for the community. An uncompromising ex-school mistress Eleanor Bannister is aware that the eyes of the town are watching her as her relationship with Abel, an itinerant builder develops.  She is defiant, wary and to her chagrin vulnerable in this area of her life hitherto unexplored.

Eleanor’s routine is disrupted when the roof of the ‘honeymoon cottage’ left to her by her parents is damaged in a storm. The same storm blows Abel into town, looking for somewhere to rent. A competent builder he persuades her to let him repair the cottage.She is reluctant, she wants shot of the place, too many memories of her childhood, she still isn’t over the death of her parents some years before. Slowly she gives in and he becomes a regular feature in her life. The goal posts are moved bit by bit as she becomes used to his presence.

There is constant comment from her neighbour and life long friend Grace, who is jealous of the intruder but slowly gets to like the idea of a man in Eleanor’s life. Eleanor is in denial that she is romantically involved and repeatedly resorts to prayer and her diary as a means of dealing with this upset.

Abel has pretty quickly told Eleanor he is in love with her, the first time he sees her she is in her nightdress barefoot on the grass and that is when it happened. It’s not the Eleanor she feels herself to be and she is embarrassed but secretly excited by this.

Abel is polite but continues to woo her despite her determination to keep him at arms’ length. It’s a game of to and fro, each holding his or her ground as petty tiffs and reconciliation shape the development of their relationship.

At the point when Abel is really starting to get to her, Eleanor feels like shedding her old life. She sees her home as she now feels others see it, stuffy and old fashioned. On a whim she gets rid of all her clothes except of course her underwear and Grace is enlisted to help her buy a whole new wardrobe. Her clothes go to charity but she then sends Grace out to buy back her dressing gown, she can’t quite go through with it. 

Abel’s past life emerges in the form of his daughter who much like him has drifted through her life. He had told Eleanor he could never be sure he wouldn’t blow out of town just as quickly as he had blown into it as he’s always had a restless spirit.

His daughter leaves her own child in their care as she sets off to look for her errant husband.

The honeymoon cottage is finished, but Abel then takes off to look for his daughter. Eleanor is now in a state of confusion having committed herself to a man who might at any time just disappear from her life. 

Eleanor’s character

Eleanor resembles a woman from the pioneer era. Tough, independent, resilient, she built her life around these qualities, steering the town’s young population into adulthood with a stern resolve. She has never expected to be liked, she isn’t known for her sense of humour. Duty is important. Once one stage of life is finished another takes over and retirement means she can still have an important role in the community. She has little concern for the opinions of others or at least she likes to appear that way. Her weaknesses lie in the fact that she has clung onto the view of herself as a daughter to the parents with whom she lived. She seems unable to move on from this role and one wonders if the same doesn’t hold for her view of herself as a retired schoolmistress. 

As the book evolves a very emotional Eleanor emerges. The desire to look after someone again takes over – she wants to iron Abel’s shirts as she’d done her father’s. It causes her all sorts of distress as it makes her vulnerable, something she dislikes. There is the fear of losing what she has so lately found. She finds she is more flexible than she thought; the prospects make her anxious, change is a challenge which she likes but find very scary.

Summary

The book was very easy reading. I was attracted to the character of Abel although I found him unbelievable. Eleanor’s character could at times be annoying, she is strong but rigid. I wished her to pack up her belongings and take off with Abel and perhaps this is what the writer intended. The limitations of small town life had been too thoroughly absorbed. The writer has captured the intimacy and involvement in its residents’ lives. The routine of everyday life and the challenge of sharing these with a hitherto stranger, whether to leave the door open when you’re in the bathroom, are those small but important details that face anyone regardless of age.

For older women readers who might like the idea of finding a relationship late in life this is a book to go for. The chances of finding a tall, slim, handsome at 75 drifter in your neighbourhood, who is fit, sexy, a sympathetic listener, saves his money, is incredibly practical and prepared to do his share of the cooking might be pretty unlikely but that’s what fiction is all about. A good holiday read.

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford published in 2003 by Arrow Books. 188pp

Written by my guest: writer Annie Morris.

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