Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Things I wonder:

  • When Elizabeth Strout first wrote Olive Kitteridge, did she envisage a sequel?
  • And when she started thinking about where Olive’s story would pick up, was it easy to know what she wanted for Olive?

No doubt I could find an interview with Strout about Olive, Again, and these questions would be answered. Instead, I’ve chosen to ponder over Olive – because she is far from an easy character. She’s cantankerous. She’s prickly. And yet we love her. Olive is judgemental. She’s tone deaf. She lacks the emotional insight needed to guide her through tricky times. And yet, her obliviousness to discomfort is precisely what allows her to be a comforting presence at the most unexpected times.

The book opens with widower Jack, who finds himself in trouble with highway patrol. He’s contemplating the recent changes in his life – a strained relationship with his daughter, loneliness, and his friendship with Olive Kitteridge –

People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they felt about something. And this is why he missed Olive Kitteridge.

Chapters from the perspective of Olive or other various characters follow. Some chapters move the story ahead, others focus on a single moment that tells us much about Olive. A handful of chapters stood out – Olive’s reluctant participation in a baby shower; her time spent with a woman with cancer; and her chance meeting with ex-student, Andrea, who had gone on to become a Poet Laureate. She tells Andrea that her son is a ‘needle in the heart’. Andrea uses Olive’s words in a poem, and the feelings that wash over Olive when she discovers this – indignation, embarrassment, and then self-reflection, is everything this book is about, all in the space of a few pages.

One thing that I noticed more in Olive, Again than in Olive Kitteridge was the need to ignore the assumption that Olive’s judgemental attitude coexisted with self-centeredness. They are traits often found together. Do they both belong in Olive? Yes and no – she behaves thoughtlessly in some parts of the story and shows great tenderness in others. Somehow Strout pulls it off, which I think demonstrates her exceptional skill – in other hands, Olive might be a less believable character, but it is this incongruence that makes Olive so interesting (and her self-reflection that makes readers forgiving).

I enjoy the delicacy of Strout’s writing. She describes emotions in a way that resonates (because it’s not good enough to simply name the emotion) –

He roared with laughter. And what a sound it was; Olive felt a physical sensation, a thrill. At the very same time she felt terror, as though a match had been lit on her and she had been soaked in oil.

Loneliness. Oh, the loneliness! It blistered Olive.

And, as she did in Olive Kitteridge, Strout introduces the links between characters, and hints at their history, with the lightest of touches – it never once reads as ‘back story’ and instead simply unfolds before you, rich and fulsome.

And then Olive suddenly thought how she had not been happy even before Henry had his stroke… Her knowledge of this unhappiness came to her at times, but usually when she was alone.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. You could read it as a stand-alone story, but it’s so much better in the context of Olive Kitteridge.

4/5 Lovely.

Olive eats a lobster roll (and promptly drops some on her jacket which makes her cross). I love lobster rolls – obviously best eaten in Maine (!) but there is a place in Melbourne that does a good one.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (Jun 8): Belfast 5°-16° and Melbourne 4°-12°.

6 responses

  1. An absolute delight! I particularly loved Olive’s irritated discomfort at the baby shower just before proving herself the perfect person to have around in a crisis. Your anaylsis of her charracter is spot on, Kate.

  2. Olive Kitteridge was one of many books I listened to without thinking much about it. Then I saw the miniseries, binged it with my daughter and ex-wife over one weekend, and re-read the book with more care. It’s a great book and I look forward to getting to this one.

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