Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
An unnecessary but quietly pleasant return to the world of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again is another collection of related short stories loosely centered around old Mrs. Kitteridge, the lovable curmudgeon of Crosby, Maine. Like in Olive Kitteridge, Strout builds a community with her stories, and often situates Olive in the background of vignettes about her neighbors and former students. Together, these scenes further flex Strout’s world-building prowess and grow into a poignant meditation on aging, both with respect to Olive’s fading body and her rapidly evolving social environs.
Despite her late years, the widow Olive remarries early in the novel, settling with a similarly lonely man. They challenge each other (he’s a Republican and interested in sports cars), but together she and Jack find solace in each other’s company. Olive, a typically gruff, blunt woman, had grown used to being perceived as unpleasant by others, but throughout Olive, Again she finds reasons to get over herself. She appears to accept her loneliness and make something of it; instead of wallowing, she reaches out to others. She listens.
And we readers get to listen as well. There’s a story of Jack getting pulled over by the police, and one of a separated couple learning their daughter is a dominatrix. In another, Olive share a coffee with one of her old students who had since, surprisingly, grown up to be a famous poet. There’s a story of a young housecleaner who would undress for her boss’s husband in exchange for an envelope of cash. And, even these stories have stories, often surprisingly modern — side characters are mentioned in passing, along with their opioid struggles and tragically young suicides.
Strout deliberately fleshes out plots that a local gossip might deem unremarkable, or those that might be told in a single sentence. This is a captivating approach to fiction, and proves that there’s so much more to a story than its one bit of action or scandal. Throughout the book, characters mention events that were developed at length in Olive Kitteridge and the related novel The Burgess Boys, but they do so by condensing that drama into tight paragraphs of dialogue. It suggests that these characters — and that people in general — don’t know the weight and majesty of their own history. Strout effectively shows the gap between what happens in a person’s life and how they process it: twenty pages could be devoted to a moment of infidelity, scandal, forgiveness, or growth, but these moments are so often spoken of in single sentences. In Olive, Again, Strout savors the quiet, profound emptiness in her characters’ lives, shining like the light in February:
“…in February the days were really getting longer, and you could see it, if you really looked. You could see how at the end of each day the world seemed cracked open and the extra light made its way across the stark trees, and promised. It promised, that light, and what a thing that was.”
One story is set in part at a local street fair. One protagonist is excited to see each booth and take in all the local art, all of which is a bit same-y with New England coastal vibes. Olive, alternatively, finds everything a bit useless and dreadful. In another story, Jack tells Olive that she’s a “reverse snob” for calling first-class travel “obscene.” These two scenes compound into an intriguing digression about finding a midpoint between the high- and lowbrow in both life and literature. Olive, Again will be overlooked by literary snobs: it doesn’t aim low but it strives to gently appeal to a more casual reader — the kind of person who might actually enjoy a street fair, who might love its art or simply the togetherness of it all. Further, the novel’s quaint, provincial tone may alienate readers looking for their books to be challenging, world-changing achievements. This is an easy book to read and relate to, and while some may find faults in that simplicity, it allows for a significant level of reflection about one’s life and one’s stories, and how delicately those two can overlap.