Books

Elizabeth Strout
Olive, Again

I know a person who refuses to discuss the author Elizabeth Strout because of a scene in her novel Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. You may know the scene from the novel, or from the 2014 mini-series, in which Frances McDormand plays the title role like it was written with her in mind. It’s the scene where Olive visits her estranged son in New York and the tension finally breaks; after pages of passive aggression between Olive, her son and his wife, her son finally lets Olive know how tough she was when he was growing up, and Olive, as if to prove his point, completely loses her temper, refusing to accept the words he refuses to keep inside.

The scene is excruciating because it hurts to see someone you’ve come to love over the course of a novel be so wrong in a way that’s utterly in tune with herself; her anger is the product of anxiety, regret and shame, a perfect defence against the kind of self-knowledge that could destroy you if you let yourself know it.

It’s also a chapter that ends on a point of pain – Olive Kitteridge is a novel-in-stories composed of 13 parts – so the reader is left feeling the burn of the encounter, looking for hints of reconciliation in the chapters to come.

I often thought of this scene, and its effect on my friend, while reading Olive, Again, the diminutively named sequel that revisits the character and her milieu over the subsequent decade, using the same structure of 13 semi-linked stories. That scene in Olive Kitteridge is just a family fight, not something that seems to matter in the scheme of a life, and it’s just as hard to explain what makes Olive, Again so difficult and affecting.

Once again, Olive, the salty curmudgeon to end all salty curmudgeons, is the central presence in some of the chapters and an essential but background part in others; different protagonists think about her in more and less positive ways, and she sometimes appears to dispense an item of difficult wisdom.

A standout chapter is “Cleaning”, about a 14-year-old girl who’s been left alone with her mother – with whom she has little in common – after her father has died. She begins cleaning house for an elderly couple and discovering her erotic life, which causes her to touch herself in front of the man in the couple. He subsequently starts to leave her cash in an unspoken agreement; she takes it home and hides it in her piano.

While the chapter is busily assembling the components that will come together in a very realist-short-story tradition, taking the character to a point of external defeat but also interior change, the reader is blindsided by the chapter’s most vital development, which looks like it’s bringing together one kind of thing – about men, women and transaction – and instead brings together something completely different, about sexuality and age.

Being made to feel strongly for minor characters was part of what made Olive Kitteridge great, but it’s a one-two punch that feels almost too generous for the sequel, which readers will really come to in the hope of seeing what happens to Olive. Here, minor characters from the original also receive new moments of intensity and grace, including one character who returns to Crosby, Maine, the main setting of the novel, to deal with the death of a relative, and finds solace in a phone call from an unexpected source.

The non-Olive chapters both build out Olive’s world and firm up Strout’s themes, the biggest of which is ageing: the sequel starts with Olive establishing a new relationship after the death of her husband, and ends in a retirement home. The scene in the retirement home is one of many that will be legible to new readers and extremely rewarding for Strout devotees – as well as continuing the story begun in Olive Kitteridge, this novel brings together characters from other books by Strout – but the most pleasing surprise of all is how much care the story as a whole applies to the subject of old age. This should not be a rare idea in contemporary fiction, with the ageing demographic of its readers, but it is.

In Strout’s hands, old age is a place of losses and gains, fruitful but exacting. It gives the world time to provide consolations for loss, to bring some relationships full circle and to throw curveballs into others. Olive looks upon these with a mean streak but is also clear-eyed and game.

Olive lives a quiet life in a small place, but something about these novels both insists upon those qualities – quiet and small – and reveals them to be false. Every life is small in the context of its relationships, but no life is small when it happens to be yours. There’s a push-pull structure in both Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again – which sometimes shifts the action away from Crosby only to trade it for another Maine town of comparable size – that creates and sustains this double vision, and allows Strout to exploit the advantages of both novels and stories.

The discrete chapters allow the author to focus on a situation’s details, getting right inside a character’s brain, building towards a moment of change, and getting the reader out before they have to come back down to earth. But the links between the chapters let her paint a fuller picture, one that gives an even greater sense of the devastating action of time. No matter how much intensity a chapter contains, or how much respect and attention we pay to these everyday travails, so many of these stories are knocked out of the way by the chapter that follows. In this way, the structure is even more clever than it appears, letting the novel accumulate power when it seems like it’s stopping to catch its breath.

Olive, Again is just about as good as Olive Kitteridge, with plenty of bitter, plenty of sweet, and chapters that suggest whole novels all by themselves. The title can be interpreted as an indicator of tone, greeting the return of something familiar not with any undue fondness, but with eyes open to the possibilities it might bring, and the changes it might find in you.

Ronnie Scott

Viking, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Ronnie Scott