This sequel to the Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge is a hymn to second chances, discovers Sophie Ratcliffe
There’s quite a bit of a falling in Olive, Again. It’s partly the literal kind. Strout, in her return to the world of her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 novel, Olive Kitteridge, finds herself with an older cast, and a more fragile one. Her characters are not quite grounded, zimmering their way round small-town New England, prone to slipping on sidewalks and toppling over in shops. But Olive, Again, like all Strout’s work, is centrally about the life of the heart. And if the title makes the process of falling for, and failing, each other, sound like a weary business, then the novel itself is brilliantly sharp and fresh.
Strout’s method has always been to write in disconnected “scenes”, and allow the plot to emerge along the way. Here, we meet or re-encounter various families in the coastal town of Crosby, inhabiting a world both fragmentary and cohesive. The 13 “episodes” can be read either as individual stories, or together, in an overarching narrative. As a whole, it catches both a timeless picture of human isolation and a very contemporary snapshot of America on the brink of Trump.
While the book might look like a sequel, its status is more nuanced than that. Olive, Again stands alone, requiring no knowledge of its predecessor. But it is also connected, teasing out moments from Olive Kitteridge, making a concerto out of a grace note, exploring what it means to elaborate a known territory. (Even this act of elaboration is a return of kinds, echoing Strout’s 2017 novel, Anything Is Possible, which remade the world of her 2016 My Name Is Lucy Barton.)
Strout delineates the lives of this small fictional community with particularity and care. A bereaved schoolgirl struggles to comprehend her distanced mother, and finds peculiar solace with a much older man. A woman returns to deal with her father’s death in a house fire. Sifting through the ashes of her memory, she has painful recollections of childhood abuse.
On the outskirts of town we meet a couple at war. Unable to discuss their feelings about long-ago marital infidelity (“back then there was no forgiveness and no divorce”), they have come to a long-standing and absurd “arrangement”:
They lived with yellow strips of duct tape separating the living room floor […] Each night Ethel made dinner and placed her plate on one side of the kitchen table and her husband’s on the other […] The main issue, of course, was the television
The stories link and disrupt each other, but central to their arc is the eponymous Olive Kitteridge. Last seen on the brink of a new relationship with a retired professor, Jack Kennison, she returns to the novel ebullient, intrusive, and vulnerable. She has a habit of speaking her mind, and of inviting confidences. She walks into conversations, and out of them just as quickly, raising her hand over her head as she moves away.
In some stories, Olive is just a bit part, a neighbourhood gossip, a bulky oddity passed on the street. Elsewhere, we inhabit her lived interior as she reflects on her feelings for Jack, and the experience of their new relationship after a number of false starts and failures. We eavesdrop on their sleep, as they hold each other, “their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore”. We watch them negotiate the oddity of ageing, with all its minute indignities of toenail cutting and incontinence pants and getting to know each other’s children.
Strout’s prose is unflinching, as when, half way through the novel, Olive reflects on the “kind of hardheartedness” she had developed during the course of her first marriage:
[...] it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage – a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding – had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed unsurmountable […] And it was her fault.
And Strout is good at faults. There is an almost revelling here, in the way one person may fail another, and her brief spell as a lawyer has, perhaps, made her a kind of laureate of candour. Elsewhere, she spells out, in delicious detail, the deeply unpleasant things that people think in private. People take offence at each other’s money, or lack of it. They dislike each other’s snobbery or their provinciality or their poverty – or the fact that they happen to be French Canadian. One character is “bothered” simply by “the way” her sister-in-law looks. “She had forgotten that Margaret had such large breasts. They seemed positively huge.” Beneath all this, Strout probes quieter and more painful species of hurt: “the variety of secrets people have been keeping to themselves for years”.
For all its darkness, Olive, Again is pierced by beauty. Olive, with her quilted homemade jacket and lumbering walk, is a romantic at heart. (Once married to a pharmacist, we might see her as a latter-day Madame Bovary.) And if she is consistently surprised by the beauty of the “February light”, or “a glorious autumn” in which “the world sparkled, and the yellows and reds, and orange and pale pinks” or “the sight of that fresh new rosebud”, one senses that her author is too.
The real beauty of this book – caught most strongly in the awkward, hard-won love between Olive and Jack – is found in its depiction of human relationships, particularly in human relationships in the process of trying again. Strout writes of willed repetition with formal brilliance. She catches the act of pulling oneself up from the ground when you have fallen too far, and all seems lost.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the demise of the novel. If it isn’t quite dead, one feels, then it’s stuck on a trolley, heading for ITU. But Strout’s craft is utterly alive. And while you can feel the ghosts of others in these pages – Updike and Alice Munro, perhaps even a touch of Faulkner and a whiff of Chekhov – there is, in her writing, something quite her own. That interest in life’s small resurrections, so quietly hidden in that titular pun (O live, again), rings out clearly in every page of this book. To read this book is to get the sense that stories, too, are a redemptive force. They give us a second chance at things. A way to live – and see – things again, anew.
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