Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Back in early 2018, I read Olive Kitteridge (2008), Elizabeth Strout’s widely acclaimed novel in short stories set in the fictional coastal town of Crosby in Maine. I adored the book but felt I couldn’t write about it at the time – partly because I was taking a break from blogging but mostly because I didn’t want to over-analyse it. Sometimes a book is just so perfect that it feels wrong somehow to break it down, as if by doing so one destroys the magic or fails to capture what makes it so special.

I feel much the same way about the sequel, Olive, Again (2019) – which if anything seems even better, even more profoundly insightful about the day-to-day burdens of life than its predecessor. Nevertheless, I want to try to note a few thoughts about this novel here as it will almost certainly feature in my reading highlights of the year.

For those of you unfamiliar with these books, both focus on Olive Kitteridge, a retired maths teacher who lives in a small-town community in Maine, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s day-to-day business. Each book is structured as a sequence of interlinked short stories. Olive features in pretty much every story – sometimes front and centre in the narrative, other times on the periphery, bumping into the main character in the street, often with a somewhat dismissive wave of the hand over her head. Now and again, an individual from one of Strout’s other (non-Olive) novels appears, the connections to Olive – however tenuous – reaching out to encompass various strands of this author’s work.

Olive is a highly complex, multi-faceted character. She is direct, abrasive, intolerant and cranky; and yet she is also capable of demonstrating real empathy towards others, particularly those who feel depressed, neglected or marginalised by mainstream society. In Olive Again, a young woman dying from cancer is a particularly poignant example. Only Olive has the courage to visit this woman, easing her isolation with her straight-talking manner, while others are too embarrassed or fearful of what to say, preferring instead to avoid any contact.

At the end of Olive Kitteridge, our protagonist is in her mid-seventies – newly widowed following the death of her husband, Henry – at the beginning of a potential new relationship with Jack, also bereaved, lonely and at a similar stage of life. The early chapters of Olive, Again chart the couple’s developing bond, a relationship not without its own tensions and frustrations. However, there is enough that unites Olive and Jack to enable them to progress to a shared existence and ultimately marriage in their twilight years. Jack, for his part, is somewhat more easy-going than Olive, more willing to accept her flaws and failings, loving her in spite of and because of her ‘Oliveness’.

The need for Olive to tell her son Christopher – a podiatrist now married to wife no. 2 – of her own forthcoming marriage, forms the basis of one the best, most acutely observed vignettes in the book. Olive’s failures as a mother are painful exposed to her during a tense family visit, as Christopher, Ann and their four children (two from Ann’s previous relationships) make the trip from their home in New York to Crosby, Maine.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth: She [Olive] 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. Other people had their children come and stay and they talked and laughed and the grandchildren sat on the lap of their grandmothers, and they went places and did things, ate meals together, kissed when they parted. Olive had images of this happening in many homes; her friend Edith, for example, before she had moved to that place for old people, her kids would come and stay. Surely they had a better time than what had just happened here. 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 caused this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? As she sat across from Jack–stunned–she felt as though she had lived her life as though blind. (p. 91, Olive, Again, Viking)

These sudden realisations – the unexpected dawning of uncomfortable truths – run through the narrative as Olive finds herself reflecting on certain aspects of her life. Perhaps most notably, Olive dwells on her lack of appreciation of Henry when they were together as a couple, her coldness towards him when all he was doing was simply asking for her love. This particular insight first strikes Olive in the most unlikely of situations, in the midst of a baby shower which she finds utterly intolerable – both tedious and ridiculous in equal measure. It is one of the standout vignettes in this exceptional novel, laced with a blend of excruciating humour and lacerating poignancy.

In the final third of the book, we find Olive in her early eighties, trying to maintain a sense of independence as the years slip by. As a natural consequence of the ageing process, Olive must learn to accept help from others from time to time. Her interactions with a doctor and a team of home carers offer some deep insights into the human condition – not only for Olive but for her carers too. Everyone has to deal with their own hardships in life, irrespective of the nature of their position. Olive’s opinionated carer, Betty – an avid supporter of Trump, much to Olive’s horror – has her own challenges: more specifically, the fallout from two broken marriages and a son with special needs. Her life sucks, nevertheless it matters – Olive can see this even if Betty cannot.

While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself.

This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and her small-town community. The political nuances of small-town life are vividly portrayed, even when glimpsed for the tiniest of moments. Read it but be prepared to shed a tear or two…

Olive, Again is published by Viking; my thanks to Penguin Random House for kindly providing a reading copy.

(I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy of the finished book, used for the quotation here.)

32 thoughts on “Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

  1. Sarah

    Fabulous summary Jacqui. Thanks for encouraging me to read the first Olive book. I shall eventually read this too. I need an Olive break just now but undoubtedly Strout is a gifted observational writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome! I’m so glad you clicked with Olive. She’s such a gift of a character, so distinctive yet utterly believable – and I love the way Strout uses her as a focal point for building a portrait of the local community through the various interactions and sub-stories.

      I think you’re right to leave a gap before even thinking about moving on to the sequel. Chances are, you’ll appreciate it all the more for coming back after a break…

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Books made up of highly interconnected short stories are appealing to me. For some reason I have always liked them. I do not know if I have ever read one centering around a single character however. These books sound very good. Olive sounds like she is a very well crafted character.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a clever way of creating a picture of an individual and their surrounding community, almost adding another layer of richness to the narrative through these nuances of small-town life. It’s the quotidian details that really stands out here: the forlorn sight of a red scarf left behind after the family visit from New York; the Trump sticker on the bumper of Betty’s pick-up, the disappointments and frustrations that mark the characters’ days. I think you’d find Olive a very interesting individual indeed!

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    This just sounds completely wonderful! Olive is such a brilliant creation. You did a great review as always Jacqui, but I know exactly what you mean about struggling to write about books you love. Most recently I wondered if I was capable of writing anything remotely coherent about South Riding!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It’s hard, isn’t it, when you feel so passionately about a book? Almost protective in a sense, as if by trying to identify what makes it so special might ‘destroy’ the very essence of the book itself. Or else, one ends up with overly trite statements of motherhood that have very little real meaning in their own right. Anyway, I’m glad you think I did a reasonable job of capturing something of interest. That’s very kind of you to say.

      And I know precisely what you mean about finding it hard to write about South Riding! It’s such an ambitious, richly-textured book, one that has to be experienced personally to gain the full effect.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah…thanks, Susan. That’s very kind of you to say. Maybe this is one of those rare occasions where the sequel is just as good as (if not better than) the original. I’m thinking The Godfather Part II, Terminator 2 and The Empire Strikes Back, here. It can be done!

      Reply
  4. Tredynas Days

    The first Olive novel was a bitter delight; I will be reading this one, too. Good to see a cantankerous, difficult woman as protagonist- but as you say, capable of great insight and empathy

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A bitter delight. I like that. There is something bittersweet about it, for sure. I think it’s the combination of contrasting qualities that makes Olive so human. She doesn’t attempt to keep her flaws and failings hidden from view; instead, they’re right out there for everyone to see. And yet, she demonstrates real moments of compassion and empathy with certain other individuals in her own unique, down-to-earth sort of way. It’s all feels highly believable and true to life — so brilliantly observed in terms of insights into certain aspects of the human condition, especially as Olive grapples with the challenges of loneliness and old age.

      I think you’ll enjoy this one a great deal, Simon. It really does live up to the exemplary standards Strout set with the first.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I’ve only read two Elizabeth Strout books before and one of them was Olive Kitteridge which I absolutely loved. So this is definitely high on my wishlist. It sounds equally brilliant, glad to hear you rate it so highly. Looking forward to getting this one myself.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re going to love this, Ali. It’s very much a continuation of the first book with the added challenges of coping with ageing, loneliness, regrets and longing, Just superb.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, gosh. I forgot that you had written about this a little while ago. Please feel free to add a link to your piece…

      Have you ever read anything by Kent Haruf? I couldn’t help but be reminded of elements of his Plainsong trilogy and Our Souls at Night as I was reading Olive. His books have a similar dynamic between character study and portrait of a small-town community, this time in the fictional setting of Holt, Colorado.

      Reply
  6. Liz

    I have skimmed this review with my eyes half closed because I am re-reading Oliver K, which I loved, before savouring Olive Again and don’t want to know much about it, but I’m very pleased you enjoyed it so much!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I would be doing exactly the same if I were in your position. Best not to know too much about it beforehand, which is partly why I’ve kept this review quite light on detail!

      Reply
  7. Grier

    How I love Olive! I am attracted to books with older women protagonists and Olive is such a flawed but likable character, dealing with aging and family the best she can. She also reminds me a bit of my own mother. After reading your review, I am eager to read Olive, Again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Me too! I think she’s a wonderful creation, so blunt and dismissive and yet deeply humane too in her own very unique way. It’s interesting how she reminds you a little of your mother. It’s often the personal resonances that can make these characters feel so believable and lifelike to us. I can see a little bit of Olive in my Aunt Betty, my mother’s older sister. She was a straight-talking woman, frequently direct and cantankerous in her dealings with others. And yet we knew there was a warm heart in there somewhere, even if she didn’t like to show it too often to others.

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Welkl, goodness, I’ve not read Strout but I may have to after your review. It does sound marvellous, particularly having a protagonist who isn’t necessarily that nice, and also the fact that she’s an older woman. Those straight talking women can be a trial: my mother says what she likes regardless of who she offends and it’s hard work…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, as you know, I’m more of a 20th century girl at heart, but Strout is one of the few contemporary novelists whose work compares favourably with the Elizabeth Taylors of this world. Not necessary in the setting or social milieu, but more in terms of her insights into human nature (particularly its flaws and failings). She’s probably akin to writers like Colm Toibin and William Trevor in that respect, painting these richly textured portraits of individuals and the communities they live in.

      Reply
  9. Julé

    Your lovely post reminds me of how I was taken by surprise after reading ‘Olive Kitteridge’, I was pretty sure it wasn’t my kind of book at all and ended up loving Olive and Elizabeth Strout’s writing. And of course I’m looking forward to picking up ‘Olive, Again’ too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting isn’t it, how much we love Olive as a character even though we know she would be quite a handful to deal with in real life? Maybe it’s because we recognise something of ourselves or our loved ones in her, however different we may be. I’m glad you were so unexpectedly taken with Olive the first time around. Olive, Again is very much a continuation of the style and themes of the original, so you’ll almost certainly enjoy it too!

      Reply
  10. clodge2013Caroline

    I thought that Olive Kitteridge was a seriously good book. I included it in my Older Women in fiction series on my blog and it has been a popular post.
    I have been looking forward to reading Olive Again, probably for the same series, since it was announced. Your review makes me think that I will not be disappointed. Thanks
    Caroline

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this will fit right into your Older Woman in Fiction series, a worthy successor to Olive Kitteridge in every respect. If anything, it’s even more perceptive on the emotional challenges of ageing; the sense of coming to terms with past failings is very poignant indeed. I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

      Reply
  11. lonesomereadereric

    I can really relate to that feeling of not being able to or finding it really difficult to write about a book if it means a lot to you. There have been several novels I’ve read in the past few years which I haven’t blogged about for that reason. I’m so glad to read your sensitive and thoughtful reaction to this book though. I found it similarly very moving.
    I wonder how much we’re meant to question Olive’s feelings of guilt over not appreciating her first husband as much as she should have. It seems to me that if many years go by we can naturally think back on our interactions with certain people and be harder on ourselves than we should be. I think if Henry were still alive and we were given his perspective in the novel he’d have different memories and feelings towards Olive, but the way Strout writes about the way Olive becomes so consumed with these fears and regrets (whether justified or not) is so powerful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s hard, isn’t it, to write about a book you feel so protective towards, almost as if you’re concerned about not being able to do it justice or failing to capture in a meaningful way what makes it so special? I’m glad you enjoyed my post; that’s very kind of you to say, especially given your personal attachment to the book too.

      I think you’re right to raise that point about Olive’s feelings of guilt over her relationship with Henry. It’s a natural reaction, I think, for us to be very hard on ourselves as we approach what might be the end phase of life. As you say, if Henry were still alive and able to communicate freely with Olive, he would almost certainly chivvy her along and counteract her brusqueness in his own very sensitive way.

      ****************Spoilers*****************

      If I recall correctly, Olive is very supportive of Henry following his stroke, visiting him regularly in the care home until his death. Not everyone would have the courage or devotion to do that in similar circumstances, and it’s hard to assess how any of us would react if faced with that kind of situation. At the end of the day, we all have our individual faults and failings; they’re part of what makes us human. Maybe that why the character of Olive resonates so strongly with many of us, because she vocalises some of the things we feel and think but are too polite to say in public…

      Reply
  12. Arti

    Frances McDormand did such a good job as Olive that I went to the book after seeing the miniseries. That’s the wonderful interactions between books to film adaptation, if done well. After reading your insightful review, I must get hold of the book sequel, and yes, before the adaptation comes out. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Like you, I first came to Olive via the mini series (followed by the book) and agree that the creative team did a brilliant job in adapting the novel for the screen. It’s a peach of a part for McDormand, and she captures the very essence of Olive to a T. I do hope you enjoy Olive, Again as much as I did.

      Reply
      1. BuriedInPrint

        Oh, I loved it too. And I felt like the series captured some of the interconnections and layers even more sharply than the prose (meaning we didn’t have to strain to spot them, they’re right there on the screen for us, but of course they first lived in Strout’s words and images). I’ve been rereading and reading Strout from the start, so I’ve just finished Olive K. and will probably allow the rest of the chronology to play out before following up with Olive herself. But I might get impatient (will try to come back after I’ve read it for myself)!

        Reply
  13. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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