Olive, Again: A Novel
“You will end up in love with Olive because she is a ton of well-written fun. You’ll enjoy her musings and put-downs and her reflections. You’ll enjoy that first-row seat to see her get married, and be a widow, and make a friend who might just be ‘schizoid’ and get used to wearing ‘poopie panties’ and to see her get through it all . . .”
Here again comes Olive, the plain-speaking matriarch of the now dispersed Kitteredge family, and though she is as Olive-like as ever, something in her has definitely changed.
Olive, Again shows us an Olive who is learning about herself at a rapid pace, every day a realization of things that were always there, but that she is just now (sometimes painfully) coming to terms with. Like how she has been pushing people away for years with her “call them like you see ’em” attitude, never knowing there would come a time when she would need others so desperately. She is older now. Henry is dead, and Christopher has gone and moved far away with a wife who seems to give birth easily every other year, but can’t find a way to connect with her husband’s mother. Here is Olive processing events after her son and daughter-in-law get into an argument during their first visit in years:
“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. Other people had their children come and stay and they talked and laughed and the grandchildren sat on the laps 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.”
It's what readers loved about Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first book, also named after her unique character, Olive Kitteredge.
And sure, Olive is abrasive and could certainly use a review of modern life’s social graces, but she is honest and as hard on herself as she is on others. In Olive, Again, a novel composed of interconnected short stories, this is even more evident than before. Here she is, reflecting on a baby shower to which she arrived as a guest and left as a midwife:
“She’d gotten up and found the girl in the kitchen, leaning over the sink, saying, ‘Oh God, oh God,’ and Olive had said to her, ‘You’re in labor,’ and the idiot child had said, ‘I think I am. But I’m not due for another week.’
"And a stupid baby shower. Olive, thinking of this as she sat in her own living room, looking out over the water, could not, even now, believe what a stupid baby shower that had been. She said out loud, ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.’ And then she got up and went into her kitchen and sat down there. ‘God,’ she said.”
Another difference is that in Olive, Again, Olive herself does not appear in every story, almost as if she were not the only protagonist of this story, were sharing credits, or functioning as a stand-in for the town of Crosby, Maine, itself a symbol for a Small Town America that is trying to hold on to what is real and good and true, while attempting to evolve away from what is closed, unloving, judgmental, and, sometimes, if not downright racist, closely condescending. Things are changing in Strout’s beautifully rendered town of a universe, and the people around Olive are noticing.
“‘Do you know—oh, this was years ago now—’ Olive sat down at the empty chair at the table. ‘Your mother called me a cunt.’
"Suzanne Larkin’s hand went to her throat, and she looked at her husband, and then at Bernie. Bernie started to chuckle.
"‘Oh, I deserved it,’ Olive said. ‘I went to see her after my first husband died, and I went there because I thought her problems were worse than my own, and she knew that was why I was there, it was extraordinary, really, I never forgot it. But my word, what a word to use.’
"Suzanne Larkin looked at Olive, and then a sudden kindness came to her face. ‘I’m so sorry about that,’ she said.
"And Olive said there was no reason to be sorry at all.
"‘She just passed away this week,’ the girl said.
"‘Oh, Godfrey,’ Olive said. Then she said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. For you.’
"And the girl reached to touch Olive’s hand lightly. ‘No reason to be sorry.’ She leaned in toward Olive. ‘At all.’”
It is those little big moments that make Olive, Again such a great read. The prose is gorgeous and flowing, wise and simple. Olive is delightful, her old age, a “coming of age” of sorts, with humor and senior citizenship combining to make her the best version of her intensely human self.
And then there is this: You will end up in love with Olive because she is a ton of well-written fun. You’ll enjoy her musings and put-downs and her reflections. You’ll enjoy that first-row seat to see her get married, and be a widow, and make a friend who might just be “schizoid” and get used to wearing “poopie panties” and to see her get through it all, everything a lesson received with the widest of eyes, to see her getting on with it, yes, getting on with, and living, life.