Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout, Viking, 2019, 304pp, £14.99 (hardback)
Elizabeth’s Strout’s bestselling debut, Amy and Isabelle, announced the arrival of a serious talent. Her second, Abide With Me, went one better. With 2008’s Olive Kitteridge she moved from novels to a trickier form: the cycle of interconnected stories. It was that rare kind of book that can reasonably be called a masterpiece, and it won its author the Pulitzer prize.
With Olive, Again, she has returned to her earlier protagonist. It’s not the first time she’s done so. For years, Strout has been building connections between her books. In previous works the links were hard to spot: a walk-on character might turn out to be the granddaughter of an earlier protagonist; a whisper of off-stage abuse in one novel became the narrative focus of another. Recently, Strout has become more open about revisiting characters as they age. Her last book, Anything is Possible, was an overt expansion of its predecessor, My Name Is Lucy Barton, returning to central characters and crucial scenes.
Olive, Again is Strout’s most overt reunion yet with a previous creation. It’s her third novel in four years, and though its title winks at the possibility of readerly exasperation, these stories reconfirm their author as a superlative talent operating at the height of her powers.
Olive is a retired maths teacher living in a small town in Maine. She is bolshie, compassionate and fiercely judgemental. In her depiction of Olive, Strout balances the two deep, contradictory intuitions we have about human character: on the one hand, that we are made and shaped by our circumstances; on the other, that we are simply ourselves, and could not change if we wanted to. Yes, Olive has been formed by a life spent minding the Christian propriety of small-town America, but beyond that she is just Olive: resplendently, helplessly herself.
At the end of Olive Kitteridge, she was widowed and alienated from her only son, destined to endure old age alone. But life is full of surprises. In the last story in that book, Olive’s friendship with wealthy widower Jack became a chance love affair. In Olive, Again that brief encounter blossoms unexpectedly into a happy marriage: ‘The first months, they had slept holding each other. Neither one of them had held another person in bed all night for years’. It’s marriage between two people hauling whole lives behind them, and each partner silently mourns their previous spouse. But for Olive, it is also a blessing.
Of the thirteen stories here, Olive features prominently in half. The others focus on a broad cast of unconnected characters, with a glancing appearance or cameo from Olive keeping them just threaded to the rest of the book. In ‘Exiles’, two women are attending a local art fair. At one point Olive passes, bellowing, “God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.” At home, someone explains: “Olive thinks everything is crap […] That’s just who she is.”
But it isn’t – not quite. In ‘The End of the Civil War Days’, a woman explains to her parents – still bitterly married after forty years together – that Olive was the teacher who helped her realise her dream. And that dream is so hilariously unexpected that it would be downright rude for me to spoil it here. I screamed with laughter.
‘The End of the Civil War Days’ is Strout’s funniest story to date. Olive, Again also contains her first to ever fall flat. ‘Heart’ starts out with Olive waking up from a heart attack. The passages set in hospital are amongst the best in the book. But the story tails off into a too-obvious plea for compassion across political boundaries, making loud clunking sounds as it goes.
The story’s failure is made more prominent by the quality of the work around it. The writing in Olive, Again is never less than beautifully clear. Authorial trills and ornaments – similes, metaphors, just-so descriptions – are there to communicate, not to dazzle. Strout wants us to believe in the story, not her own abilities.
Overwhelmingly, we do believe. The greatest surprise of all is kept to the last story, ‘Friend’. Olive, now very old indeed, unexpectedly finds herself comforted by a friendship with a new female friend – one who turns out to be a central character in Strout’s first published novel. It’s a tender and sad story, one that’s clear-eyed about the indignities of old age (think: incontinence) as well as its unexpected consolations.
Why does an author return to a character? For a long time, the archetypal form of the short story has been the journey towards a moment of revelation. But Strout is interested in life’s continuance. Epiphanies come and epiphanies go; in truth they change very little. ‘Imagine at my age, starting over again,’ Olive says of her new marriage. Then she adds, ‘But it’s never starting over, Cindy, it’s just continuing on.’
Strout’s triumph, in this book and its predecessor, has been to create a character so abidingly real that her life demands telling even as it enters its least eventful, most grief-stricken stage. Strout’s vision of old age – indeed, her vision of life – is not a cheerful one. In Olive, Again, the characters fight against misery like people trying to hold back the tide. If the same is true of us, then at least there are writers like Strout, in whose work we can find our loneliness intermittently comprehended.
Words by John Phipps.
For more information and to buy Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, visit Penguin’s website.
John Phipps is a writer. He lives in London.
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