Review 1526: Olive, Again

Best of Ten!
Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Day 565: Olive Kitteridge

Cover for Olive KitteridgeThis collection of linked short stories lucidly illuminates the contradictions that make up the human condition. The link that binds the stories together is Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher in small-town Maine.

Olive is plain-spoken and gruff. Some people are afraid of her, but she can show sudden compassion and insight.

In “The Pharmacy,” Olive’s gentle husband Henry falls in love with his young pharmacy assistant without ever making his feelings known. In “A Little Burst,” Olive steals some of her daughter-in-law’s clothes during the wedding at the house the Kitteridges built for their son. She has overheard Suzanne saying nasty things about her. In “Tulips,” after Henry has a heart attack, Olive reflects upon their pain that their son Christopher moved away to California with his wife, and even after divorcing did not return or invite them to visit.

In other stories, Olive is less important or simply a presence. A timely conversation with her seems to keep a young man named Kevin from attempting suicide in “Incoming Tide.” In another story, the Kitteridges stroll to the restaurant through the bar where Angie plays the piano every night and thinks about the man she loved.

With neighbors and strangers, Olive says exactly the right thing in a difficult moment, and with her loved ones exactly the wrong thing. Many of the stories are sad but ultimately touching. Strout uses an unusual structure to create the sense of a lovely and affecting novel.