Review by Harriet, 31 October 2019
I’ve reviewed two of Elizabeth Strout’s novels on Shiny here and here and both were brilliant. But possibly my favourite up to now has been her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, which, in a series of interlinked short stories, introduces the eponymous Olive, a middle-aged schoolteacher living in the small town of Crosby, Maine. A big, physically strong woman, she doesn’t go in for small talk – ‘Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology’, says a neighbour – and she often offends people with her acerbic rudeness. A schoolteacher, she is married to Henry, a pharmacist, and has a grown up son, Christopher, with whom she has a difficult relationship: ‘You can make people feel terrible’, he tells her. But she’s a woman with deep feelings and capable of acts of real generosity and love. By the end of that novel, Henry has died and Olive, lonely and lost, has begun a friendship with Jack Kennison, a widower and retired Harvard professor, whose political opinions are the direct opposite of Olive’s own.
In Strout’s latest novel, we meet Olive again. She’s now in her mid-seventies. Despite her initial wariness with Jack, here we see them moving towards a deeper friendship, which, after an occasion on which they end up spending the night together, wrapped in each other’s arms, culminates in what is an essentially happy marriage. The novel spans around ten years, and by the end, Jack has died and Olive, by now in her mid-eighties, has recognised the need to move to sheltered accommodation.
As in the first novel, not all the thirteen stories focus on Olive herself. Once again – and this is really Strout’s signature – the stories are about ordinary people, ones you wouldn’t give a second glance to if you passed them in the street, and you might not think much of them if you met them in person. But Strout has a way of digging below the surface, and revealing the deep universal emotions they all experience. In the first story, we learn more about Jack – and he learns more about himself. He has a difficult relationship with his daughter Cassie, whose marriage to another woman he has never been able to fully accept. He ponders his own love affair with a colleague, and discovers that his wife Betsy had had a long running relationship with a mutual friend. In ‘Cleaning’ a teenage girl with a difficult home life gets a job as a cleaner to an unpleasant elderly woman, and develops a silent, strange relationship with the woman’s husband. Olive and Jack appear briefly at the start of ‘Helped’, in which an unhappy young woman from a severely dysfunctional family has a meeting with the family lawyer, ends up telling him about her profoundly spiritual experiences, and finds him surprisingly understanding. ‘The Walk’ shows a middle-aged man reflecting on his adult children and their childhood friends. He remembers in particular a young man of extreme beauty and talent, and is shocked when, during an encounter with the police, he recognises the same man draped semi-conscious over a park bench, now a hopeless drug addict. In ‘Exiles’ two characters from Strout’s novel The Burgess Boys appear, and their wives have an uncomfortable encounter. ‘The End of the Civil War Days’ depicts a most unhappy household – a husband and wide living together but not speaking, their home divided in half with strips of yellow duct tape. Shocked by the revelation that one of their daughters is making a living as a dominatrix, Fergus has a heart attack, but in the end the family seems to be finally reconciled.
As for Olive herself, late on in the novel, now in old age, she considers ‘the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be.’ Of course she’s really talking about herself. In ‘Labor’, she attends a baby shower and finds herself hating it.
All women. Why only women at a baby shower? Did men have nothing to do with this business of babies? Olive thought she didn’t like women. She liked men. She had always liked men, She had wanted five sons.
Leaving early, however, she encounters a young pregnant woman who is going into labour, and ends up delivering the baby in the back of her own car. In ‘Light’, she visits Cindy, a old pupil, now a young married woman who is suffering from cancer, and lifts her spirits in a way Cindy will never forget: ‘My God, but I will always love the light in February….Just look at that February light’. Then of course there’s her uneasy relationship with her son Christopher, who, in ‘Motherless Child’, comes to visit with his brood of children and step-children. The visit doesn’t go well – he is antagonistic to Jack when he hears the couple plan to marry, and the parting is uncomfortable, leaving Olive feeling ‘She had failed on a colossal level’. But later on, in ‘Heart’, after Olive’s heart attack Chris constantly phones the hospital and arranges aftercare for her, and the doctor baffles her by saying ‘You must have been a very good mother’. The final story, ‘Friend’, finds her in a residential care home where, after a period of feeling lonely and unwelcome, she strikes up a friendship with new arrival Isabelle (from Strout’s novel Amy and Isabelle) and the two agree to look out for each other.
The great thing about Strout’s writing is the profound way in which our perspective changes as we read. As Olive learns to understand herself better, and as we learn to understand her and those around her, it’s not too much to say that we also learn to expand our view of the human condition in general. People are complicated, often lead tragic lives, and need our empathy, something that Olive, at her best, proves to have a gift for.
Although I’ve talked about the relationship between this novel and the earlier one, of course you can (and should) read this even if it’s your first introduction to Olive. It deals with some difficult issues – ageing and death are dealt with pretty unsparingly but still with great compassion, and parent/child relations come in for some microscopic analysis – but Olive surely is one of the most intriguing characters in fiction and it’s been a huge treat to encounter her again.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and has a personal blog here.
Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again (Viking, 2019). 978-0241374597, 304pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link.