Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout


I did come to enjoy the Olive stories in the original Olive Kitteridge, but hesitated to read this one. Olive is hard to love, given her penchant for saying what she thinks, no matter how hurtful it might be. She seems to go out of her way to express that honesty when no one asked for her thoughts. On the other hand she often finds the kind word to say, in spite of herself, and steps in to be with people who need someone to be there. My reservations about Olive aside, I found myself most interested when the stories focused on her as she suffers the usual sorrows of the elderly. Her reactions to loss and to her own health problems are engaging without being outlandish.

Through these stories we learn there is an epidemic of misfortune and bad behavior in Crosby, Maine and in the nearby Shirley Falls. Though I dearly loved Strout’s book Anything is Possible, the connected stories revealed an Illinois town whose residents were either monstrous or able to shine through tough times. Even given that we crave the dramatic story over humdrum daily life, I am made uneasy by the cranked up drama.

The characters from another of Strout’s books, The Burgess Boys, turn up here. The older brother Jim was relentlessly unpleasant in that book; when we encounter him now, he has been medicated for about a year. So although Jim is easier to be with, his wife Helen steps in to fill the unpleasant role. When the brothers drove to Shirley Falls to visit their sister Susan, they couldn’t take Helen because she didn’t get along with Susan. She was left with Bob’s wife for the afternoon and gets so drunk she falls down stairs and breaks her arm and some ribs.

Now that I reflect on it, I am amazed that I read this whole book. Though Elizabeth Strout somehow packages relentless horrors in such a way to keep you reading, I might well have put it aside if Olive’s decline hadn’t taken center stage.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again, Random House, 2019, 304 pages. I read the kindle version. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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