For a number of years the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge had been on my mental list of “must read” novels but it was only when a friend bought me a copy of Olive, Again that, thinking I really ought to read them in sequence, I finally got around to reading it. In one way I regret that I’d deprived myself of such a “gem” but the huge advantage of the wait has been that I wasn’t faced with having a long wait for this sequel!
Olive, Again picks up the thread of Olive’s life not long after the first story ended and, as in the first novel, comprises a series of linked vignettes featuring residents of the small town of Crosby, Maine. A number of the characters are familiar from the previous book but the reader’s insights into their lives and experiences is deepened by the author’s acute observations of how people behave in a whole range of scenarios, how previous firmly-held views and beliefs can change when individuals face new challenges and how this then affects those around them see them. There wasn’t one character in the book which wasn’t finely drawn and entirely credible and the author has captured so evocatively the fact that, behind closed doors, there are often individuals living lives of quiet desperation. Although the titular character of Olive sometimes appears only on the periphery of some of these stories, her presence is, to a greater or lesser degree, central to each of them, with each of the stories adding to the reader’s understanding of this flawed, complex character.
Olive herself is self-aware and honest enough to recognise that there are many ways in which she too has changed over the years, although often seeming surprised that this has happened! There are many ways in which she has mellowed but, essentially, she has never lost that acuity which has always defined her interactions with others, and neither has she lost her ability to show remarkable compassion towards people who are, in one way or another, suffering.
In my review of the first book I reflected on my huge admiration for the author’s ability to “transform a collection of vignettes into such a satisfying whole, managing to combine moments of profound sadness, loneliness, regret, cruelty, anger, and loss with so many moments of caring tenderness, deep empathy, long-lasting love, loyalty, reconciliation and, ultimately, a message that no matter how messy and confusing it is, life is worth living to the full, no matter what your age.” Those observations feel equally valid for this sequel, which has at its heart so much about the realities of ageing, with some keenly observed, sympathetic reflections on its associated challenges, a subject which is seldom treated so honestly (if at all!) in fiction writing. Olive may not like what is happening to her body but, as always, she’s prepared to face the challenges head-on, no “going quietly” for her!
I’ve grown to love Olive Kitteridge! She’s such an endearing character (not that she would necessarily recognise or approve of that description!) and I’m already feeling bereft of her company; even in those moments when I felt frustrated by her sometimes self-destructive behaviour, I always felt able to believe in her innate goodness … and I thoroughly enjoyed her waspish sense of humour. So, I find myself hoping (although probably in vain!) that this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this wonderful character, as well as the residents of Crosby, Maine!
Linda Hepworth 5/5*
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
978-0-241-37459-7 Viking Penguin Random House Hardback October 2019