sun 15/12/2019

Elizabeth Strout: Olive, Again review - compassion, honesty and community | reviews, news & interviews

Elizabeth Strout: Olive, Again review - compassion, honesty and community

Elizabeth Strout: Olive, Again review - compassion, honesty and community

Strout’s curmudgeon Olive reckons with advancing age and life's continuing surprises

Elizabeth Strout© Leonard-Cendamo

Elizabeth Strout is fond of plain titles. Much as her stories are interested in subtlety – the quiet complications and contradictions of ordinary life – her books advertise themselves by means of telling understatements. Olive, Again follows ten years on the heels of her Pulitzer Prize-winning “novel in stories” Olive Kitteridge, which painted a resonant, emotionally complex portrait of a community in fictional Crosby, a small coastal town in Strout’s native Maine. Via 13 interlinking short stories, Strout refracts glimpses of her eponymous character Olive, a retired maths teacher and irascible pharmacist’s wife.

From its title alone, Olive, Again suggests some of the changes we can expect to see in Strout’s unsentimental, blunt, but highly compassionate protagonist. There might be something apologetic in the announcement “again” (self-consciously repetitious), but it also communicates the idea of a determined carrying on. An indomitable character, Olive continues to be vitally herself: “She stood there, staring at the ridiculous lampshade with its ruffled business going on”. This is, however, increasingly a softened, vulnerable version of her, aware that her gruffness might cause hurt. The later decades of ageing show the conflict between the security of a stubborn fidelity to the person you have been all these years, and the fear (as loved ones are lost, and the experiences of a life begin to be totalled) at what you may have missed. There is a tenderness to this title, too: the intimacy of first-name terms.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth StroutWe can expect to grow closer to this Olive, to see her grapple with her anxieties, her presumption, her prejudices, and even admit to her failings in a bewildered process of self-reckoning: “Andrea had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another. How funny. How interesting. She, who always thought that she knew everything that others did not. It just wasn’t true.” The novel begins a month after the close of its predecessor, when Olive and Jack Kennison, a widower local to Crosby only since his retirement from academic tenure at Harvard, lay pressed together on his bed “like two slices of Swiss cheese”. “[S]uch holes they brought to this union – what pieces life took out of you”. For reasons opaque to Jack, Olive has seemingly been ignoring his attempts at communication since. The first chapter closely follows his perspective, as the sequel adopts a similar structure to Olive Kitteridge: loosely overlapping chapters centring around the various inhabitants of Crosby, each neat enough in its own narrative arc to function as a self-contained short story. Olive is sometimes the focus of a chapter, at other times an ally who materialises briefly with some curt yet heartfelt words of insight or empathy, and sometimes appearing only fleetingly, or not at all.

As before, Strout’s deft navigation of character and circumstance feels compellingly honest. Her stories are attentive to the peculiar realities of how people act in positions of loneliness and grief, without succumbing to the clichés of melodrama. Kayley Callaghan, for instance, is an eighth grader coping with the loss of her father, who cleans her English teacher’s house for cash and rows with her mother. She experiences a deep, unexpected tenderness for the elderly, benign Mr Ringrose, who pays her generously to reveal her breasts to his silent gaze – as if their mutual lonelinesses meet in communion in those charged moments of complete attention to one other. The character of Bernie Green is likewise a quietly powerful portrayal: a man who has kept many secrets over the years, and convincingly offers what he can of his warmth and kindness to Suzanne Larkin, who is suffering from uncomfortable truths about her parents.

For all that this might sound difficult, Olive, Again is a redemptive, heart-warming novel about our potential to understand one another, and to keep growing to know ourselves. Where Olive Kitteridge often dealt in narratives of fracture, a calmer pattern of reconciliation is dominant here, showing us the comfort and the strength to be found in others.

@jess_payn

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