Reading an Elizabeth Strout novel reminds me of Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates—except this time we know what we’re getting. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph is something to be savored. I loved her earlier book, Olive Kitteridge, which captured the life of a retired, small-town math teacher in delicious and stunningly realistic detail. The followup, Olive, Again was just as delectable. Thanks to the restrictions associated with self-isolation, I whizzed through Olive, Again faster than I would have liked. I really didn’t want to say goodbye to Olive but I couldn’t put the book down. Maybe Strout will write about a third book someday about Olive’s early life.
Olive, Again picked up on Olive’s life at around the age of 72, an age this old boomer could so easily relate to. It’s tempting to categorize life after that age as being irrelevant and lacking in interest, but our anti-hero, Olive, proves that there is considerably more life to be lived regardless of age. By the end of the first book, her husband Henry had died and we assumed she’d live out the rest of her life as a grumpy, lonely old lady who had a contentious relationship with her only son. She surprises us.
Small town life has a rhythm, morality and even speech patterns that are different from life in larger urban communities. In Crosby, Maine where Olive lives, everyone knows everyone. They know their parents, their kids, their relatives, their secrets and their shortcomings. Such physical closeness sometimes precludes more emotional closeness between friends and neighbours because news travels fast in a small community and people sometimes tend to be more circumspect about their personal lives.
Olive Kitteridge has an abrasive and irascible personality. Despite living her entire life in the community, she has few close friends and many acquaintances. She’s the last person you would expect to find love again in her seventies and remarry. But she does and in gaining a new husband, she also gains a step-daughter who lives in California and a larger home when she moves in with her new husband, Jack.
I particularly loved the small-town expressions she uses. Instead of swearing, which she disapproves of and is so common in speech today, when she’s shocked or exasperated she says, “Oh Godfrey . . !” . I chuckled when Olive describes a local waitress as “the girl with the huge hind end . . . huge slabs of hind end”. It’s been ages since I’ve heard someone’s derrière described in those words.
She’s not completely without compassion. When Olive and Jack go on a Scandanavian cruise of fjords she confides that part of the reason she’s not enjoying the trip is because she can’t stop thinking about the staff of the cruise “stacked up on top of each other in the bottom of that ship with no windows. I mean, we were taking this trip on the backs of these people”, who were away from their families for ten months of the year.
As she gets on in years and moves into a seniors’ residence Olive realizes she has not always been thoughtful or caring. She regrets how she treated her first husband and makes a conscious effort to soften her edges, taking the time to ask people “Tell me all about your life”. Strout’s descriptions of life in the residence will ring familiar to anyone who has a relative living in assisted living. It’s easy to picture her surroundings and the natural adjustment issues that arise when Olive first moves in.
Olive, Again was a wonderful read. I enjoyed every single page. There are not a lot of tension-inducing highs and lows in the plotline, just the well-paced, seasonal progression of a woman’s life. Strout paints the scenery with beautiful strokes and sensitivity. We can relate to Olive not only as a woman, but to her son and his struggles, as well as the other people in the community and the inevitable progression of life. I’d rate this book 9 out of 10 and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Disclosure: If you are unable to obtain either of these books from your local bookshop or library, they are available from the links above. If you order from these links you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you.