Olive Again Elizabeth Strout.jpg

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.

Frances McDormand so perfectly embodied the character of Olive in the miniseries based on the first novel I’d love to see her reprise the role in an adaptation of this new novel.

Frances McDormand so perfectly embodied the character of Olive in the miniseries based on the first novel I’d love to see her reprise the role in an adaptation of this new novel.

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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Elizabeth Strout’s new novel “Anything is Possible” is the follow up and something of a continuation of her 2016 novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” In a way it feels as if she is self consciously playing with the structure of the novel to capture an individual’s state of being from different angles. While the former gave fragments of Lucy’s life all centred around the recollection of a hospital visit from her mother, this new novel works more like a collection of interlinked short stories revolving around individuals connected with Lucy’s early life. These are people from the place of her deprived youth in rural Illinois. Many are struggling with issues of continuing poverty, obesity, isolation or emotional insecurity – even those who grew to be financially successful or married someone wealthy are still scarred by the privation of their younger years. Lucy Barton is the big local success story as she’s been in the media because she has a new book out (something of a memoir) which is also displayed in the local bookstore. She hovers in the consciousness of many of these characters prompting feelings of admiration, tenderness, jealousy or resentment. Around the gravitational pull of the (mostly) absent figure of Lucy, we’re given snapshots from these people’s later lives to create a tremendously powerful portrait of a community.

It would be somewhat useful to have a chart to plot out all the links between people portrayed in this novel as I found myself flipping back and forth to get the connections. This wasn’t a problem for me, more like an engaging puzzle. It will also be especially interesting to go back to the first novel to see where some characters have been mentioned previously. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to read “My Name is Lucy Barton” before reading this new novel. It can quite safely stand on its own as there’s no vital information lacking and each individual’s story is complete in itself. Some have nothing to do with Lucy at all, but others lean heavily on memories or opinions about Lucy. However, for readers who want to know more about Lucy Barton, there are some startling and heartbreaking revelations about her past. But overall the stories are wide-ranging from a celibate guidance counsellor to a Vietnam War vet involved in a complicated relationship with a prostitute to a B&B owner who is not to be trifled with. This is one of those books like Sara Taylor's “The Shore” or Yaa Gyasi's “Homegoing” that deals with characters individually so that it might feel like you're reading interlinked short stories, but an overarching conception and worldview binds the text together as a novel.

Set right in the middle of the novel is the story of Angelina, a grown woman who is estranged from her husband and goes to visit her seventy-eight year old mother Mary who lives in Italy. The pair converse about their lives, family and local gossip while awkwardly realigning their mother-daughter relationship as they haven’t seen each other in a number of years. Their intimacy stands out in sharp contrast to “My Name is Lucy Barton” where the extended conversations between mother and daughter were considerably icier. Yet, Mary and Angelina’s relationship is also strained as it feels like the daughter (the youngest in their large family) has never been able to grow out of her childish role. She desires something intangible from her mother just like Lucy Barton, but neither of these women can ever fully articulate what this thing is. The way that Strout relays their interactions and meditations about this strange state of being is moving and thought-provoking. I can’t help but feel she’s making a grander statement about mother-daughter relationships by juxtaposing Angelina & Mary's conversations with Lucy & Lydia's, but I feel like I’d need to reread both novels to fully grasp the implications of this.

Mary always believed that Elvis Presley was her secret friend though she had never once seen him.

Something that Strout does so exquisitely in this novel is portray the way in which people quietly maintain private beliefs throughout their lives. For instance, a man in one section believes that the disaster of his barn burning down was the will of God. Another woman believes that when her final daughter was born she recognized her instantly – whereas her other children felt like strangers at birth. These beliefs are intensely private and it would feel profane for the people who possess them to utter these ideas aloud. They are acknowledged to be totally illogical, yet they seem to guide their lives and influence their value systems like some private form of mysticism. It feels to me like many of us maintain these whimsical beliefs or superstitions which are admittedly absurd but still inform the core of our being. Strout illuminates how these occur in several of her characters' lives. They're examples of why a somewhat fanciful inner life exists simultaneously with the stark reality of our outer lives.

Although many of these stories are filled with vicious conflict there are intensely beautiful examples of kindness and sensitive reflection. Strout gets people's gritty characters while also recognizing the elegance with which everyone imagines a better future for themselves, but inevitably falls short because the world is never what we really believe it to be. One character muses “How did you ever know? You never knew anything, and anyone who thought they knew anything – well, they were in for a great big surprise.” Lucy Barton is viewed by many in her town as a success story, but part of the price of that success is never being able to return to the past. No matter how hard Lucy tries to reconnect with her origin or write about the “truth” of it, she can't fully engage with it. If she'd had a different constitution her story could have been the stories of any one of these people from her humble hometown. But she was determined to make her own way forward.

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I always excitedly anticipate reading new books by Elizabeth Strout. I don’t know if this is because she writes powerful prose and striking characters with deep insight or if it’s because she often sets her stories in my home state of Maine so her narratives feel personally familiar and very real to me. Probably both. Whatever the case, her books are fantastic including her previous novel “The Burgess Boys” which came out a few years ago. Now she’s published a very different kind of novel “My Name is Lucy Barton”. It’s a pared-down short book narrated from Lucy’s perspective and, by this character’s own admission, she’s far from reliable and refuses to give the whole story. Through impressionistic passages we’re told about time she spent in the hospital “many years ago now” when her estranged mother visited her for several days. She meditates upon their conversations and other important moments from her life, but we don’t get the whole story – just haunting flashes of memories and meditative thoughts. They build to create a deeply-felt portrait of a life forged through perseverance and love.

Lucy is a successful writer in NYC who grew up in a very impoverished family in Illinois. She has little or no contact with her father or two siblings. She’s been married twice with two daughters from her first marriage. Beyond this, the full trajectory of her life is uncertain. Where some stories told from the point of view of a narrator who insists on being vague like the woman at the centre of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” might frustrate a reader for deliberately suppressing detail and withholding emotion, Lucy is compelling and relatable for how forthright she is with her feelings. Cusk’s novel makes the perfect contrast where her narrator refuses to give her name (until it slips out towards the end) but Strout’s narrator firmly declares her name in the title. However, the texture of Lucy’s identity is more elusive. The story of her life isn’t straightforward because life isn’t straightforward. Memory is amorphous. This novel is filled with words like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ and ‘I think.’ Little is concrete. What really gripped me along her journey was this desperate need I felt she had to convey something important about her life. Her scattered story builds to something deeply felt and triumphantly inspiring.

Lucy finds a mentor and teacher in a writer named Sarah Payne who tells her that “we all have only one story.” It’s that singularity that Lucy strives so hard to describe. But, of course, there isn’t any one truth to the past and I felt this is why Lucy grapples to tell it. She also refuses to surrender some details like the break from her first husband William: “This is not the story of my marriage… I cannot write the story of my marriage.” It could be that the dissolution of her marriage isn’t the point of why she’s writing. Or she might be reluctant to divulge what really happened because she won’t come out well. Whatever happened, it’s now in the past. She meaningfully states: “when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”

What she reports on instead is the important momentary details of what have shaped her identity. For instance, she has an intense engagement with literature that feeds her desire to write: “the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.” All these details build toward a “ruthless” declaration of freedom from her past: “This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go- to Amgash, Illinois- and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!” There is something beautifully liberating about this assertive cry of independence even though it involves cutting free from those you once loved. It’s an affirmation that you can create who you really want to be.

"Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy"

"Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy"

Strout has an unnerving knack for triggering bouts of nostalgia and reflection for me. In one section she describes seeing a house’s pink insulation and how overwhelmingly alluring it is, but she is warned off from ever touching it because of the danger of fibreglass. At another point she describes an early incident in her marriage where she tried to cook for her husband without knowing whether a clove of garlic meant the full bulb or only a sliver from it. I had this same experience as a precocious teen cooking a “fancy” meal for my friends. A recipe I made called for five cloves of garlic so I stood in a supermarket piling enormous bulbs of garlic into a shopping cart while my mother looked on disapprovingly. I know these images won’t resonant for everyone, but it’s striking to me how often Strout tugs at my memories making me recall and feel things I haven’t experienced in many years.

The universal feelings Strout taps more into are to do with strained family relations. Lucy longs for a love from her parents which they aren’t capable of giving or not, at least, in any overt way. She states that “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” Her awareness of her difference cuts her off from those around her. The emotional and financial depravity take their toll causing her to write “I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep.” It’s interesting reading this so closely after reading Laing’s brilliant nonfiction book “The Lonely City” as Lucy is the embodiment of the kind of detached state of being that Laing describes so well. From her hospital bed, Lucy can see the Chrysler Building outside her window. It comes to stand like a beacon of all she’s come to stand for: a solid robust individual far from the desolate landscape of her upbringing.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I have to admit that my reactions to this book must include some personal bias since it is mostly set and largely about the State of Maine – the place where I grew up. As such this novel is painfully close and familiar to me: from the cans of Moxie stacked in the refrigerator to the yellowing leaves of maple trees in the Fall to the remote bus station in Maine’s largest city to the restaurants all closed by 9PM because most residents have dinner at 5:30PM. It’s a detailed portrait of life in this largely rural, economically-depressed, sparsely populated, beautiful rocky coast-lined place known as The Vacation State – a place that I love in many ways but which I couldn’t wait to move away from when I became an adult. As is noted in the novel, it has a dwindling population because many young people move out of state when they come of age. With many of the new generation leaving and non-white immigrants moving in there will inevitably be clashes (since the majority of the population in Maine is Caucasian.)

This is the issue at the centre of Elizabeth Strout’s novel focusing on a fictional town called Shirley Falls. A teenage boy named Zach rolls the head of a pig into the town’s mosque attended by the steadily growing Somali population. This sparks off a political debate about racial and religious intolerance in the state. Zach’s uncles Jim and Bob Burgess who both work in the law profession (although Jim is much more successful) and live in New York City return to Maine to help defend Zach’s case. In the process they reignite family ties with Zach and his mother, their estranged sister Susan who has lived all her life in Shirley Falls. The Burgess siblings lost their father when they were all quite young due to an accident that has caused strained relations between them ever since. As the truth about the past gradually emerges the insecurities of all three of the adults comes to the forefront, particularly the antagonistic relationship between bullying arrogant successful Jim and large-hearted Bob described as “big, slob-dog, incontinent self, the opposite of Jim.” They have to renegotiate the meaning of family as their need for each other becomes evident.

The novel begins with an interesting prologue about a mother and daughter gossiping about this family and the incident with Zach. It gives you information about the fates of some of the characters we follow throughout the novel. Thus I found it fascinating to go back to the beginning and read it again after finishing the novel since I was now very acquainted with the characters. The novel is the daughter’s account of the siblings (as well as Jim and Bob’s wives). However, as a counter-point to the purely white perspective, sections of the novel switch to focus on Abdikarim, one of the Somali population who has taken up residence in Maine. He’s also a character who comes to play a pivotal role in the plot near the novel’s end.

Strout creates subtly written scenes which hint at much deeper feelings than what are on show. Here is an example of the artful (almost Jamesian) composition of Strout’s scenes. In one chapter while on vacation Jim’s wife Helen plans to seduce him after reading a magazine article about maintaining intimacy in a marriage. She finds him enraged and ugly after speaking with his brother on the phone. Her focus turns to a bowl of lemons and “a queer calmness descended on her” while her husband rages. As she looks at the lemons the idea of them can’t seep into her consciousness. At a point of emotional crisis there is a separation between her essential being and the world around her. It’s as if in looking at a still life painting which clearly represents a “thing” you have no understanding of what that thing is. It’s the gap between experience and emotional involvement with that experience. It’s a profound way to represent the interstices between knowing and being.

One scene in particular is so powerful it made me physically cry. The sister Susan reflects on her early marriage and first pregnancy which resulted in a miscarriage. The grief accompanying this loss is a shock for her to bear and transforms her: “It was as though she had been escorted through a door into some large and private club that she had not even known existed. Women who miscarried. Society did not care much for them. It really didn’t. And the women in the club mostly passed each other silently. People outside the club said, ‘You’ll have another one.’” This is a searing indictment of the way society deals with women who have lost children to miscarriage – something that sadly happens to so many women in the early stages of their first pregnancy. It reminds me of another powerful and original novel – “Black Bread White Beer” by Niven Govinden (which I reviewed a few months ago) about a couple dealing with a miscarriage.

“The Burgess Boys” provides more in-depth, but equally complex social critiques about the issue of strained race relations in the US in the past decade. The rise of fear and mistrust following 9/11 has led to sublimated and sometimes overt expressions of xenophobia. Strout states “that’s what we ignorant, weenie Americans, ever since the towers went down, really want to do. Have permission to hate them.” In some scenes characters find reasons to cite why the cultural differences between the native Maine population and the Somali immigrants is untenable. Although a huge amount of people show up for a rally to support tolerance (as opposed to the handful of white-supremacists who show up to demonstrate against them) there are hushed private conversations between the white population who make generalizations and speak negatively about the groups of Somali. Many of the events concerning the Somali depicted in this novel are inspired by real incidents. Strout beautifully illustrates various points of view to raise questions and make you think more about this complex, difficult issue.

More than anything, this novel was a nostalgia trip for me. Describing the powerful connection and the mixed emotions you have for the place where you grew up is difficult. However, Strout does this incredibly well when Bob arrives back in Maine to advise his sister and nephew: “How could he describe what he felt? The unfurling of an ache so poignant it was almost erotic, this longing, the inner silent gasp as though in the face of something unutterably beautiful, the desire to put his head down on the big loose lap of this town, Shirley Falls.” There is a strong sense of familiarity and reverting back to a childhood self, but that self is now imbued with an adult sensibility that is both hesitant and yearning. It’s a sensation I know very well, especially for this specific location, and it’s what I feel whenever I return to Maine for a visit. It makes me wonder how authentic my accent now sounds when I say “You can’t get they-ah from he-yah.”

Elizabeth Strout interviewed at Politics & Prose in Washington DC

Strout uses a lush poetic language at the beginning of many chapters to describe the physical environment of her scenes. Whether you are familiar with the Maine landscape or not this book will make you feel like you’ve been there. Although I felt a deep, personal connection to this book I believe that “The Burgess Boys” will resonate with many people because of the universal issues it raises about family and community.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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