Olive, Again (Olive Kitteridge, #2) by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House
Publication date: October 15, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
On Monday I reviewed Olive Kitteridge in preparation for today’s review of Elizabeth Strout’s sequel, Olive, Again. I’ll start by saying these books stand alone. Olive is Olive is Olive. She’s a decade older, her relationship with her son is still virtually non-existent, but there’s a new man in her life. There’s also the tiniest flicker that age is taking the edge off some of her sharpest corners. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a warm and fuzzy ode to Olive. It’s a ballad to aging, regret, memory, and all the messy details that define a life.
At the end of Olive Kitteridge, Olive went out with Jack, a wealthy man from Crosby. Now, the two have tentatively moved into more of a relationship. Slowly, something deeper forms, because Jack has his own demons and regrets—namely a long marriage in which he cheated on his wife repeatedly. He recalls being unconscious after surgery and being told how his wife had spent days at his bedside gazing at him.
Jack had believed this; it had, he remembered, made him a tiny bit uneasy, and then—years later—during an argument he brought it up and Betsy said, “I was hoping you would die.”…
And then she had said, looking uncomfortable, “It would have made things easier for me.”
Ouch. With such simplicity and clarity Strout slices hard into the unpleasant guts of marriage. Not easy to read, but Strout isn’t reaching for easy. Rather, in each of the many characters’ lives Olive interacts with, something painful, awkward, and unexpected comes out. It hurts, but release brings relief. These are not characters hidden behind facades. It’s what is most likely going on around us, in our neighborhoods, with our families, but we don’t see it.
I ended up thinking about the Olive books much in the way I view modern day books about pregnancy and being a new mother. Gone are the glowy, Madonna and child vignettes, replaced by tales of the discomfort, frustration, tedium, and pain. Strout is writing real. She peels away the lustrous paint of small-town life and relationships to reveal the wood rot and cracked foundations beneath. Which isn’t to say you don’t want to live there or you want a divorce. Olive, Again is an eloquent acknowledgement of the ravages of time and the work needed to keep it all together. Also, the humor and compromise, both in equal measure.
The Olive books aren’t for everyone. I get it. It’s hard for me to say I liked them. I’m not sure I did, but I appreciated them. They’re novels of truth—not the happy kind, but the hard truth. Strout doesn’t shy away from the difficult. She owns it and finds the beauty, small as it may be, within.