What a joy to open a new book by Elizabeth Strout, one of my favourite authors, and even more so when it is Olive, Again (Viking Penguin Random House 2019), featuring one of my favourite literary characters, the indomitable Olive Kitteridge.
This book follows the second half of Olive’s life in Crosby, Maine as she navigates her days without her beloved first husband, Henry, and with a second man in her life, Jack. And of course her son Christopher, occasionally estranged and with his strange wife Ann to deal with. Olive is ‘blunt, contradictory, yet deeply loveable’ and her bracing rudeness, her sharp wit and personal observations about others, and her particular and no-nonsense attitude towards life and the idiots around her make her such a deliciously disagreeable person. And yet … she has moments of truth and beauty, moments of kindness and tolerance and respect … and as she becomes older, it seems she is perhaps finally learning some lessons from life as she witnesses both the triumphs and tragedies of her friends and neighbours.
The novel is also a treatise about getting older, and the physical and mental indignities that must be suffered along the way. Strout writes with great empathy and humour of the frailties of aging and the emotional journey of becoming more dependent and less able.
Olive, Again is written in the same wonderful style as Olive Kitteridge – almost a series of vignettes or short stories that all feature Olive in some way, but not always as the central character. The novel follows Olive as the years pass, but each chapter also features different characters, sometimes those close to her, sometimes people only tangentially related. But every characterisation is fully formed and deeply insightful. It is these rounded portraits of others – along with how they relate to Olive – that make this book so delightful. Every sentence is necessary. Every picture painted is alive with colour. Reading Olive, Again is like returning to an old friend and discovering they are very much as you remember them, but that you perhaps understand them and maybe even like them a little bit more. Olive is a little more tender and perhaps a little less Olive.
I often thought while reading that it is such a shame that Olive Kitteridge never met A Man Called Ove; now THAT would be an interesting story!