Without a doubt “Olive, Again” is one of the books I’ve been most anticipating this year. Elizabeth Strout is a favourite author of mine not only because she writes so beautifully and movingly about the lives of ordinary people, but I often feel a special personal connection to her fiction which is so often set in Maine - where I also grew up. This means her characters and their culture feel so immediately recognizable and familiar to me. However, such inside knowledge isn’t needed to appreciate the drama, comedy and astute insight found in Strout’s enthralling fiction. Certainly one of the author’s most beloved characters is Olive Kitteridge who first appeared in the 2008 “novel in stories” named after her. Olive is loveable in spite of or maybe because of being such an irascible, strong-willed individual. She’s the sort of character I love to read about but would be terrified to meet in real life.
Strout’s new novel picks up with Olive in her later years when she takes a new husband, makes an uneasy reconciliation with her son and transitions into old age. But, as is typical in Strout’s books and because this is another novel which also functions as a series of interconnected short stories, certain sections focus on other characters in Olive’s community as well. As I talked about in a video earlier this year, I love how this form of novel gives a more rounded picture of a group of characters since you get a series of individual perspectives but also better see their relationships and perspectives on each other. Later parts of this new novel bring certain characters together and you discover what happened to them after their individual sections conclude. In some sections Olive only makes a brief appearance or is referred to glancingly, but essentially this novel revolves around her.
One of the interesting recurrences in this novel are moments where characters are so shocked and unsettled by unexpected incidents that they remember them throughout their lives. It’s remarked how they can’t believe something happens and this disbelief makes it such a haunting experience for them that they don’t entirely trust their memory that it even occurred. This is such a true mark of individual experience in how certain occurrences like this will doggedly and inexplicably stick with us. We’ll obsessively think over them again and again like a puzzle we can never solve. It’s really moving how Strout captures this trait of human experience and how this creates an open-ended sense of life where there are no firm conclusions but only a series of unsettling mysteries which remain from our interactions with others.
A wonderful trait the author gives to Olive is a phrase where she’ll dismiss someone who disagrees with or ignores her by remarking “phooey to you.” While it’s a funny rejoinder, it also takes on a poignancy over the course of the novel in how it shows Olive’s essential alienation from other people and how rather than trying to find a more dynamic way to engage with them she’ll simply emotionally cut herself off. This leads to a relatable sense of loneliness she experiences and feels much more keenly as she grows older and must depend on other people more because she can’t remain as physically independent. What’s so clever about this recurring phrase of Olive’s is that it serves as a verbal tic the character possesses like Scarlett O’Hara dismissing objections people make about her actions by blithely stating “Fiddle dee dee” rather than seriously engaging with them. It’s an idiosyncrasy Olive possesses and something she must learn to mitigate if she is going to form meaningful connections with others.
While it’s often poignant how the novel shows her making this journey, there are moments when the message becomes too overt – such as when Olive finds a way to communicate with a Trump supporter she initially cuts herself off from. In instances like this it’s like the author is intruding upon the narrative too much to make a statement about how we need to form a dialogue between politically opposed individuals in the US. I’m not saying I disagree with this sentiment but in a novel it comes across as overtly didactic. Nevertheless, it shows a consistency of character since Olive is someone who always identified as a liberal democrat who angrily lashes out against republicans like the final section of the first novel “Olive Kitteridge” where Olive is outraged to discover Jack Kennison voted for George W. Bush.
I appreciated how the novel uses different stories to trace the transforming moral values of the culture over many years and different generations. One section concerns a daughter who returns home to inform her parents she works as a dominatrix and that a documentary has been made about her. Meanwhile, her father participates in Civil War re-enactments to physically inhabit an idea of the past. This contrast of activities creatively shows how we test the limits of our identities by inhabiting different modes of being. It also shows how there have been so many changes to what’s deemed permissible in society over time such as an elderly woman who recounts how she was stigmatized when she was a teenager for producing a child out of wedlock, a wife who has an affair with her therapist and a daughter who is estranged from her father after coming out as a lesbian. I’m glad the novel delves into these very different experiences by using this form of a “novel in stories” because it gives a more panoramic picture than if we were only limited to Olive’s point of view.
There’s been a lot of cynicism expressed recently regarding literary novels such as “The Testaments” and “Find Me” that are sequels to previous books. But I’ve enjoyed how each of these books creatively carries their stories forward. It’s like visiting past friends and catching up with them. It also allows for a more expansive portrait of these complex characters and the communities they inhabit – just as Strout has done previously with her character Lucy Barton who she picks up with again in the sequel “Anything is Possible”. Reading “Olive, Again” also speaks to my experience as a person who has changed and grown since first reading about Olive Kitteridge over a decade ago. Like Olive, I’ve had a lot of new experiences since then but I’m not sure I’m particularly any wiser; life just goes on. I loved having this chance to fictionally meet Olive again. More than that, this is a novel filled with so much humanity and exhibits a rare honesty about our relationships and individual foibles.