Aging Gently, Messily: On Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive, Again”
By Jonathan VatnerOctober 16, 2019
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
“I never intended to return to Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout said in a recent interview with The New Yorker. “I really thought I was done with her, and she with me.” Then one day, while Strout sat in a European café, her difficult, lovable character roared back to life. Olive Kitteridge did not want for a sequel, but the result — charming, amusing, and consistently surprising — is a follow-up worthy of the original. Olive has aged, and she, along with the residents of the fictional seaside hamlet of Crosby, Maine, are grappling with a changed world. Just as in Updike’s Rabbit series, a change in time changes everything.
Olive Kitteridge is a gorgeous 2008 novel in stories (and a stellar HBO miniseries) that depicts the life of a woman whose deep humanity is often occluded by her pain. Her father died by self-inflicted gunshot wound, her platonic lover in a car accident, and she rages at her husband, Henry, and son, Christopher. In a memorable scene that takes place the day of Christopher’s wedding, Olive, after overhearing a derisive comment, steals a bra and one shoe from her daughter-in-law and defaces one of her sweaters as a kind of curse on their marriage. Yet in more sympathetic moments, she tries to care for an anorexic girl in town and counsels a boy considering suicide. She’s impulsive and ill-mannered but also deeply moral.
Olive Kitteridge ends with the death of Henry and the beginnings of an awkward romance with wealthy Maine transplant Jack Kennison. Olive, Again picks up shortly after, and follows our curmudgeonly antihero through the twilight of her life.
From the first few chapters — which, as in Olive Kitteridge, are free-standing short stories — Strout creates the Olive her fans expect, doing good while grousing the whole way. And as usual in Strout’s stories, the craft is virtuosic and often risky. A seed planted in the first few pages — often a bit of gossip or a retrospective observation — bears fruit in the final turn. The point of view shifts unexpectedly or jumps forward or backward in time. Surprises wing in but always make a crazy kind of sense. Family secrets, sexual and violent, emerge in moments of wild intensity.
But the prose in Olive, Again is more relaxed than the firecracker descriptions, finely tuned ellipses, and whip-smart banter of its predecessor. It’s a more peaceful novel, recounting more aftermath than crisis.
The common theme in almost all the stories’ plot lines is aging. Who gets to age gracefully, and who goes “dopey-dope” (Olive’s phrase) or dies young? How does one cope with the indignities of “poopie panties” and enforced hospital stays? When is it time to give up the car keys or move into assisted living? And, more profoundly, what can be gleaned about one’s life in retrospect? “Who were they, who had they been?” Olive thinks during one of the book’s many contemplative moments. “And who — who in the world — was she?”
This older Olive is gentler, or at least her barbs carry less venom. She acknowledges her weaknesses. She tries to be a good grandmother to her son’s four children, though, as we see during a poignant visit from her son’s family, she’s not a particularly generous one. She tries to let Jack spend his money without judging him. She still volunteers as confidante for those in town confronting death. For example, after she sees Cindy Coombs, a former student of hers who now has cancer, in the grocery store, Olive starts paying her visits to talk about mortality.
Her internal landscape is gentler, too — and the reader is granted a new intimacy with her. The earlier Olive was embittered and resentful; this one is spilling over with panic, regret, and some measure of acceptance. As she becomes frailer and her friends die, she reckons with the life she lived: Was she a good wife? Was she a good mother? What has she learned? Each time she reflects upon these questions, she doesn’t know if she’s happy with the answers.
About Henry, Olive tells Cindy, “But I’m just saying, I wasn’t especially good to him, and it hurts me now. It really does. At times these days — rarely, very rarely, but at times — I feel like I’ve become, oh, just a tiny — tiny — bit better as a person, and it makes me sick that Henry didn’t get any of that from me.”
And after the disastrous visit by her son’s family, Olive understands that she’d been a terrible mother.
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. […] As she sat across from Jack — stunned — she felt as though she had lived her life as though blind.
These moments are particularly satisfying because they’re much delayed. But sometimes her frank introspection creeps past the edge of credibility. The Olive of Olive Kitteridge blamed others for her shortcomings. This Olive is almost masochistic in her ability to flay herself.
Olive Kitteridge isn’t just a novel about a woman in a small town; it’s a novel about the ways a small town shapes and stifles its inhabitants. While about half of the stories are told from Olive’s perspective, narrative divagations follow other residents of Crosby: the piano player at the restaurant who has been strung along by a married man, a woman who discovers her husband’s betrayal from a glance at a concert, a woman afflicted with the urge to shoplift after her father’s death, a bride who’s been jilted at the altar. These characters, trapped by their circumstances (and limited by limited men), try to live more expansively — and the stories resonate with Olive’s: her squandered potential and frustration with Henry vibrate every time she appears in the novel.
Olive, Again follows this same pattern, splicing the drama and heartbreak of other residents into the story of Olive’s twilight years. In some of these stories, characters struggle to understand the mysteries of loved ones and strangers; in others, the book juxtaposes parents and children, revealing how traumas mutate and resurface a generation later. These themes are repeated in Olive’s own struggles to understand herself, Jack and Henry, and Christopher.
The trauma-ridden themes of Olive, Again also recall Strout’s most recent couplet, the novel My Name Is Lucy Barton and the short story collection Anything Is Possible. The former is an elusive first-person confessional by a writer with an unspoken (and unspeakable) past. In the latter, that novel reveals itself to be a memoir passed around by Lucy’s friends and family, whose traumas are almost unbearable.
The surprise of Lucy Barton appearing in Anything Is Possible is repeated in Olive, Again, though in a more casual way. In a chapter called “Exiles,” Jim, Bob, and Susan Burgess — the siblings from Strout’s 2013 novel The Burgess Boys — reunite in nearby Shirley Falls and revisit old conflicts of class and childhood tragedy. Olive has a walk-on role at a seaside display of art, dismissing the paintings as “crap” — and it’s revealed that Bob Burgess and his wife know her. Elsewhere, Isabelle Goodrow from Amy and Isabelle, Strout’s 1998 debut, brings comfort and contrast to Olive in the book’s last act. Both chapters serve as an oblique coda to those novels, and they loop these familiar Strout personages into the question of how lives change with age. In a way, Olive, Again becomes an umbrella sequel, not just to Olive Kitteridge but to The Burgess Boys and Amy and Isabelle, too.
When Helen Burgess and Isabelle Goodrow bump into Olive, the shock of interconnectedness is delightful. The sense of community that pervades Strout’s writing feels even more expansive when her novels converge, when the various Maines she has depicted with exquisite specificity turn out to be the same. It’s as if Strout is telling her readers that her mission in writing these books has been singular: to portray in luminous detail the messy, secretive, consequential lives of people in a small town.
Jonathan Vatner is the author of Carnegie Hill, a novel published in August 2019 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Poets & Writers; and many other publications.
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