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Olive, Again

Review

Olive, Again

Eleven years have passed since Elizabeth Strout introduced readers to cranky, judgmental, altogether human Olive Kitteridge and some of her fellow townspeople in (fictional) Crosby, Maine. Much has changed --- her son, Christopher, has gray hair and finally shows some signs of maturity, Somalis have settled in nearby Shirley Falls, and Olive herself begins to suffer the indignities of old age. What hasn’t changed is human nature, and once again these are perfect characters to explore the subject.

OLIVE, AGAIN employs the same structure as OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Chapters are stand-alone stories, linked by the irascible former math teacher, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly but is not shy about barging into a life when she feels curious or sympathetic. We meet her second husband, Jack Kennison, a professor from Harvard who retired under somewhat dubious circumstances: “He was just an old man with a sloppy belly and not anyone worth noticing. Almost, this was freeing.”

"Strout, in her patient and low-key descriptions of profound realizations, awakens our sympathies with these characters and ultimately with our own neuroses. Once again, Olive and her compatriots will worm their way into your heart."

The conservative Jack, with his scotch and sports car, seems to be an odd match for the resolutely egalitarian Olive. She is furious when he buys them first-class tickets to Oslo: “I’m not flying first-class. It’s obscene.” But she’s even more furious when he declines to join her in coach class on the way over: “She sat in the aisle next to a large man --- Olive was large herself --- and by the window was the man’s girlfriend, an Asian girl probably twenty years younger, but how could you tell with Asians. Before they had even taken off, she hated them both.” On the flight home, she relents and joins Jack in first-class. She’s astounded: “It was like she was an astronaut, in her own little cubbyhole. There was a kit, with socks and a mask and a toothbrush, all for her!”

Olive may be a crank pot, but she is an honest crank pot and not afraid to change her mind. To that end, she is open to new insights about what she admits is her favorite subject --- herself. When Christopher and his wife, Ann, visit with their children, he’s dismissive and angry when Olive tells him she’s going to marry Jack. His wife finally loses it: “Christopher, you are such a baby! You think I have four little kids? I have five little kids.” Christopher straightens up then, but Olive is profoundly disturbed and broods about it when the family leaves: “She had done what Ann had done. She had yelled at [her late first husband] Henry in front of people…. So there was this: Her son had married his mother, as all men --- in some form or other --- eventually do.”

Olive is constitutionally unable to sugarcoat anything --- not to herself or to others. And that makes her a great listener, which opens both her and the reader to people’s ordinary yet gut-wrenching stories.

Fans of Elizabeth Strout will be happy to catch up with subjects from her other novels: Isabelle, from AMY AND ISABELLE, and the brothers from THE BURGESS BOYS. I can’t think of another author who is better at punctuating scenes with depictions of the natural world: “The field was darkening, the trees behind it were like pieces of black canvas, but the sky still sent down the sun, which sliced gently across the grass on the far end of the field.” Strout, in her patient and low-key descriptions of profound realizations, awakens our sympathies with these characters and ultimately with our own neuroses. Once again, Olive and her compatriots will worm their way into your heart.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on October 16, 2019

Olive, Again
by Elizabeth Strout

  • Publication Date: October 15, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812996542
  • ISBN-13: 9780812996548