Review: Olive, Again

Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: The sequel to Olive Kitteridge, an older Olive on her second marriage after Henry died, the indignities and transitions of aging, coming to terms with relationships with children and others, and the unique ways Olive shows up, helpfully, when you’d least expect it.

Olive Kitteridge is back. Elizabeth Strout has given us another exquisite set of stories revolving around Olive Kitteridge, the retired school teacher, always of an opinion, frank, sometimes to abrasiveness, and surprisingly sympathetic when it matters most.

This is an older Olive, and many of the stories revolve around the challenges of aging. She gives voice to the experience of many, marrying a second time after her first husband, Henry, had died. She married Jack Kennison, a retired Harvard professor, exiled to main after being exiled under the cloud of sexual harassment allegations. We experience how good it is to share a bed with someone again, and how hard. There are the bodily changes, and compensations–pedicures when no longer able to trim one’s nails, for example. Others are harder, including a heart attack, needing to wear Depends for incontinence, and falls.

Several stories focus around relationships with children, including a visit to Olive by Philip and his wife Ann and their son Henry. There are the realizations of the shortcomings of parenting, the compensations when kids nevertheless turn out to be decent human beings, and the reconciliations, such as when Ann opens up about the feeling of being a “motherless child” and Olive recognizes that this must be how Philip has felt as well. And there are the shifts in relationship, as parent becomes increasingly dependent on child, as is the case as Olive suffers a heart attack and a fall, and must move out of the big house Jack has left to a senior facility.

Then there are the relationships, some with former students. At a baby shower, Olive ends up delivering a baby, exercising her common sense with the laboring mother who is trying to make it through a tedious shower. Perhaps the most touching of the collection is how Olive walks with a cancer patient, a former student, as she undergoes chemo, the avoidance of other friends, and the fear of death. I found this perhaps the most powerful of the collection. Another case turns out less well, as an encounter with a former student turned poet laureate ends up with the encounter memorialized, not favorably, in a poem.

Strout gives us an unblinking portrayal through Olive and the circle around her of the journey of aging, the joys, the vicissitudes, the resolutions, and the unresolved. In Olive, we see a character who grows even as she ages, in self-understanding and empathy, even as she remains the indomitable Olive we’ve come to know.

One thought on “Review: Olive, Again

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2023 | Bob on Books

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