A Book Review: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.
Published by Penguin Books, 31.10.2019, 304 Pages, e book £14.99
“And Olive thought about this: the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be, even when—as in her own case—it was temporary. She thought of Betty and her stupid bumper sticker, and the child who had been so frightened that Halima Butterfly had told her about, and yet to tell any of this right now to Betty, who was genuinely suffering—as Olive had suffered—seemed cruel, and she kept silent.”
Elizabeth Strout; Olive Again 2019
This book is a follow up to Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, the seventy something year old lady who speaks her mind and thus is not very well liked. She had lost her husband Henry, is estranged from her only son Christopher and her father shot himself in their kitchen when she was a child, and she says this matter-of-factly. But underneath this blunt exterior, Olive is a woman who understands human weaknesses and needs; and is very much aware of her own. She lives in Crosby, Maine which seems to be inhabited by other families living humdrum lives, or do they?
Take for example Jack who holds two PhD’s, lost his tenure from Harvard due to indiscretions and now has to wear special undergarments after having survived prostate cancer. He, who had cheated on his now deceased wife several times, has trouble accepting the fact his only child is a lesbian and he voted for Trump so no surprises there. But this Republican is happy to let his wife take centre stage and he be Mr Olive, in short, for all his shortcomings, he treats his lady right.
This book is a relief as it focuses on the life of two Septuagenarians since no other book I’ve read (or can recall) had made this age group lead. It touches on politics, LGBTQ relationship, breastfeeding in public, suicide and BDSM; though never quite giving any a proper prod.
Strout writes vividly and her attention to detail especially to mundane everyday events is spectacular. She uses allegory to describe Olive and Jacks relationship as such, “During the night they would shift, but always they were holding each other, and Jack thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore — and how they held on for dear life! He would never have imagined it. The Olive-ness of her, the neediness of himself.”
However, I love brevity and so her style of using long sentences complete with hyphens, commas, and exclamation marks takes some getting used to.
“But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish—all those hundreds of students she had taught, the girls and boys in high school she had passed in the corridor when she was a high school girl herself (many—most—would be dead by now), the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises, sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had placed before her cups of coffee— All of it gone, or about to go.”
Stout, in an interview with Politics and Prose, said that she does not write her books from start to finish. For this book she had started with ‘Poetry,’ a chapter that comes towards the end of the book. She relies on her intuition to fit her books together and see where each character should go.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this as reading this book left me a bit disjointed. I kept looking for deeper connections when all they had in common was their geographical location and there are many characters so one can get sidetracked by characters that pop in and disappear like the cancer-stricken lady who Olive visits then drops off without a mention, or the dominatrix whose character suddenly appears for no apparent reason.
It seems that Stout uses what Virginia Woolf accuses Charles Dickens of in one of her critiques saying that his works had, “become a bunch of separate characters loosely held together, often by the most arbitrary conventions, who tend to fly asunder and split our attention into so many different parts”, adding that he made his books blaze not by tightening the plot but by throwing a handful of characters in the fire. I felt the same way, that Stout throws her characters at us and instead of us readers holding complete bodies, we have arms, legs ears and other appendages that we have to make sense of.
But if anything, Stouts writing is precise. I especially love how she describes things like, ‘Summer opened itself up’, and when she described Olive and Christopher’s attempt at repairing their relationship, she successfully conjured up the strained bond between mother and son. Reading it was like pulling teeth and I admire Stout for her ability to do this to us, her readers. She places us in the middle of her characters, and they, the characters themselves, are like bodies looking in and we are looking into them together.
Books are meant to stir something inside us and this book in hindsight has done that. I now use a lot more commas and longer sentences, I have been thinking a lot about growing old and I now notice more in the mundaneness of life!
A lot of work goes into writing such detailed characters and while I do not gravitate towards fiction as much at this phase of my life, through this book, I re-acquainted myself with the love of words, especially how words can be moulded into the magical and creative, the beauty of which I had missed in my quest for facts in my non-fiction reads.
As part of Our Shared Shelf Book Club, you can read the review on the same book by Leonora Sinclair of Marama Alliance UK here. Drop us your thoughts in the comments section or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy reading and take care
Miri @ Auvou.