Elizabeth Strout's Olive, Again

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again (Viking 2019)

This is a sequel to Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I haven’t read that book, but I did see and love Lisa Cholodenko’s 2014 miniseries starring Frances McDormand (my tiny blog post here).

Olive Kitteridge is a retired math(s) teacher in the small Maine town of Crosby. The book’s thirteen chapters form what Frank Moorhouse used to call a discontinuous narrative – sometimes Olive is front and centre, so that we see everything through her eyes; sometimes she makes a tiny, almost inconsequential appearance in the lives of other local characters, and we catch glimpses, usually unflattering, of how they see her.

Olive is a large, socially awkward woman who can be shockingly unaware of the needs of other people: when her son and his wife come on a visit from New York City with their four children, including a small baby, she doesn’t think to buy milk and realises only when they are all there that she has only two chairs in her kitchen. The flip side of that quality is that she speaks her truth unsparingly – without malice, but without care for the effect of her words. As trivial example, at a display of work by local artists she loudly proclaims that it’s all crap. She tells a grieving widower that his recently deceased wife once called her a cunt – and Olive is a woman who hates swearing.

Yet amid all the wreckage of her life, she has a wonderful integrity and an ability to learn from painful interactions. To at least some people she’s loveable; to some she’s an inspiration. When she needs home nursing help she bluntly challenges the racism of one carer but wins her affection anyhow, and her similarly blunt interrogation of a Somali-heritage nurse wins her as well.

In the brief Acknowledgments, Elizabeth Strout mentions ‘cultural differences between New York City and Maine’, which makes me think that perhaps Olive is meant as a kind of incarnation of the spirit of Maine – plain-spoken, honest, taciturn as opposed to New York’s sophistication. I do wonder if Olive might be on the spectrum, but really that’s not what matters: she lives on the page as completely her own woman, warts – plenty of warts – and all.

If the book is reaching for anything other than a portrait of a woman (definitely not a lady) who came to Elizabeth Strout fully made, maybe its an approach to life, a philosophy, that’s summed up in a statement made by another character who is dealing with bereavement (there’s a lot of death, suffering and infidelity in this book, as well as love, tolerance and surprising moments of joy):

‘I’ve thought about this a lot. A lot. And here is the – well , the phrase I’ve come up with, I mean just for myself, but this is he phrase that goes through my head. I think our job – maybe even our duty – is to – ‘ Her voice became calm, adultlike. ‘To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.’

(p 115–116)

Very much in her own way, Olive has grace.

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