Olive Kittredge, one of the most beloved–and feisty–characters in contemporary literature (the novel “Olive Kittredge” won The Pulitzer Prize) has returned in Elizabeth Strout’s new novel “Olive, Again”, and Strout’s older Olive is as compelling a character as she was in the original novel. Elizabeth Strout also happens to write perfect, flawless prose; her sentences ring with one perfect sentence after another. As a writer, Strout can’t be beat for clarity, insight, psychological nuance.
Strout’s other major accomplishment in “Olive, Again”, is her willingness to deal with the topics of ageing and old age itself, as we remeet an older, widowed Olive, who has an on again/off again relationship with her one son, now living in New York with a wife who comes to the marriage with two children of her own. Olive doesn’t give herself the highest marks as a mother–we readers admire her candor, her honesty, as she reevalutes her marriage in some of her hours alone (Olive had once taught math in the local high school). A visit to Crosby, Maine, the invented small town in which Olive lives, from her son and wife and new baby, is wonderfully portrayed by Strout; all those little things that cause tension within families surface and nearly erupt during this visit–Olive doesn’t have the right cereals for the children, for example–and her daughter-in-law offers the most basic, nearly formal, pieces of conversation. It all drives Olive nuts; we rarely, in literature, get the perspective of the ageing parent, and Strout writes this with precision and humor. (The novel really is a series of linked short stories).
Olive remarries in “Olive, Again”, and the dynamics of her marriage to former Harvard professor Jack is fraught with those sensitivities that two older people may bring into a second/late marriage: loneliness, an ability to avoid sore emotional spots from each partner’s past, an understanding of limited time left for each individually and as a couple. Olive has a kind of blunt, occasionally curmudgeon-like understanding of people, visiting a dying young woman and allowing her to discuss her upcoming death; having coffee with a former student, currently a nationally famous poet, and later discovering that her conversation with this woman has ended up in a poem , which nails Olive’s own loneliness with urgency and empathy.
When Strout describes the very old Olive, widowed again, living alone in Jack’s house, fearful of solitude and the ravages of aging, falling on her porch, unable to get up, and the decision process by which Olive moves herself to a retirement community (during this period, one of the nurses tending her opens up her own life to Olive–that’s a gorgeous story unto itself), Strout has moved into literary territory that almost all American writers avoid: old age, the loneliness of it, and what to do with oneself at such time–Olive’s 86 by the end of the book. She hates the retirement place, dislikes the cheery people and staff, but eventually makes one woman friend and an arrangement to visit one another daily and look in on the other: Olive’s resilient, indeed. And Strout knows that character is consistent throughout life; old Olive and young Olive are much the same person, if the old Olive is more reflective, of course. Strout’s honest and empathetic descriptions of Olive aging and old are two of the most important parts of this book. American readers are overwhelmed with younger, find-oneself rites-of-passage novels (mostly female, these days), and it’s heartening to read about those late, last periods of life, anathema in a country obsessed with youth and its trends.
“Olive, Again”, is another Elizabeth Strout masterpiece, a flawless novel of acute psychological power, and Olive Kittredge again becomes and remains one of the most fascinating characters in American literature. It’s a truly awesome novel.