Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Revisiting an old friend

Cover imageWhat a joy to spot a new Elizabeth Strout in the publishing schedules and an even greater one to find that it’s about the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge from Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form as the original, comprising thirteen closely knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player.

I like you, Olive… … I’m not sure why, really. But I do

Strout’s book opens with Jack Kennison, recently widowed and on his way to the next town to buy whiskey in order to avoid bumping in to Olive. Readers already acquainted with her might assume it’s to avoid her judgemental gaze but the tentative relationship between these two has stalled and Jack wants to spare them both embarrassment. As with Olive Kitteridge, Strout takes us into the lives and homes of several inhabitants of Crosby, Maine where Olive taught maths and lived with her husband, Henry, for decades. Olive is far from the most popular of Crosby’s residents. Apparently short on empathy and with no patience for modern social niceties such as baby showers, she’s unwavering in approaching the unapproachable, visiting a middle-aged woman who may be dying when her friends are too scared to face her. The very idea of Olive at a baby shower might well discombobulate those who’ve met her before but when a pregnant guest goes into labour it’s the no-nonsense Olive who saves the day. Her uncompromisingly brusque exterior hides a practical humanity and she’s generous in her honesty when she gets things wrong.

He would never have imagined it. The Olive-ness of her, the neediness of himself; never in his life would he have imagined that he would spend his final years with such a woman in such a way

Small details fill in Olive’s life for readers who’ve not read her first outing or those of us who can’t quite remember it all and are cursing ourselves for not finding the time for a reread. The sharp characterisation, dry humour, understated prose interspersed with occasional passages of quietly lyrical descriptive writing are all present and correct. Strout trusts her readers to infer and draw their own conclusions. Her themes are pleasingly familiar: small town life, loneliness, regret, love, the complications of human relationships, and ageing as unflinchingly explored as Olive would demand. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Viking: London 2019 9780241374597 304 pages Hardback

27 thoughts on “Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Revisiting an old friend

  1. helenmackinven

    LOVED it! It didn’t disappoint in any way and I had a wee lump in my throat at the end. I too hope that HBO adapts it and I’ve got a feeling that we may hear more from Olive as she’d been typing up her memories near the end of the book which hinted that Elizabeth Strout still has more Olive tales to tell.

    Reply
  2. BookerTalk

    I’m looking forward to this but first I have to read Olive Kitteridge – I know you said that the new book fills in details for people who missed book 1 but I have a feeling that getting to know the character in more depth will have its rewards

    Reply
        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          I know what you mean but I do regret not doing it sometimes and this is one of those occasions. I used to make sure I reread one book I’d loved per month but that slipped by the wayside some time ago.

          Reply
  3. JacquiWine

    Lovely! I’m so glad you adored this too. What a difficult feat for Strout to pull off, but she does it so successfully. As you say, she has a way of making everyday developments feel so real and full of significance…

    I do hope they decide to do another mini series. It’s too good an opportunity to pass up!

    Reply
  4. Naomi

    I’m so happy this book is getting so much love. I can’t wait to read it.
    I was thinking exactly the same thing about Frances Mcdormand. Wouldn’t that be great?

    Reply

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