September 2021 Open Book Group – Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout

I enjoyed moderating Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge, a collection of 13 linked stories centred around the title character Olive, a difficult but endearing, retired, but not retiring, middle-school maths teacher, In Olive,again Strout returns to the coastal town of Crosby, Maine with an update. She reprises the literary device of interlinking stories in which Olive is either the main character or in which she has a walk-on part.

This is the third Elizabeth Strout we have read in OBG; My name is Lucy Barton in 2017 and Olive Kitteridge last year during lockdown. We never had a chance to discuss it.

At the close of Olive Kitteridge Olive, lonely after the death of her husband Henry, struck up an unlikely friendship with Jack Kennison. He was a Harvard professor whom she and Henry had dismissed as one of those entitled, arrogant retirees from out-of-state. Her opinion changed after she found Jack collapsed on a riverside path. Olive learned that he, too, was lonely following the recent death of his wife, and like Olive, regretted his alienation from his only child.

Olive, Again opens three weeks later. The potential connection between Olive and Jack has come to naught. In the first story Arrested we re-meet Jack driving out of Crosby to Portland, for a drink, to avoid bumping into Olive. It gives us a chance to view Olive from afar. In the next story Labour, Olive is at a baby shower which she finds unbearably stupid. She is in a tizzy over “that horrible old rich flub-dub of a man”. In the following stories, we are kept updated on their relationship either through brief paragraphs interspersed in someone else’s life, or where they are the main actors. Jack and Olive progress from tentative dating as a recently widowed couple to a second marriage for both of them before Jack’s death from a heart attack. Olive deals with the loneliness of being a widow for the second time. She faces the trials of aging having to rely on carers in her home and then moving into a residential facility. In other stories we also re-meet characters from Olive Kitteridge such as Suzanne Larkin and the Burgess brothers.

Eleven faces filled the screen as we regrouped, on OBG-Zoom, for a welcome respite from our endless Covid lockdown. We were all taken with Strout’s characterisation of Olive. She is  real and complex. Strout had created someone who even Jack found overwhelming ” maybe you could be a little less Olive with me, even if it means being a little more Olive with others” he pleads as he asks her to marry him.

The description of her alienation from her son, Christopher, when he, his second wife Ann and their blended family came from New York for a visit in the story Motherless Child, was painfully accurate. We opined few families are picture book happy (ref Tolstoy) yet when Olive was in hospital Christopher’s visits and genuine concern surprised and delighted her. One member waxed lyrical about how Olive had made her laugh out loud.

We thought the literary device of individual anecdotes or episodes worked well. They enabled us to observe Olive’s ever-evolving ‘personality, but also the influence and effect she has had on many individuals over her lifetime. As one member pointed out the device replicated the feeling of a small town with different lives running both in parallel and intertwined. For most of the time, small town life rambles on until a catastrophe, like the Larkin murder, creates a ripple effect throughout its residents.

We noted how the prose itself was beautifully written with many acutely observed interactions between the different protagonists in all the stories. Strout wrote evocative descriptions of the changing seasons in Maine from the pale February light to the red autumnal maples.

One member did note that she had found the stories depressing as Olive faces the indignities and challenges of old age. Rather too close to comfort for us OBGers!

We discussed themes of snobbery, class divides and the pervading loneliness of many characters, young, middle-aged and old. To counteract those, Olive and her tribe were capable of multiple small acts of kindness. They provide a background to Strout showing Olive becoming more self-aware and more empathetic as she ages. Though ultimately as one member read out the novel’s last line where Olive, now in residential care, wonders “I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully I do not understand a thing” Is Strout asking do any of us truly know ourselves?

We digressed to a generalised discussion of American literature’s concern with inhabitants in small towns –  Crossing to Safety by  Wallace Stegner (OBG 2013),  Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Lila (OBG 2014 and 2021).

So, we say goodbye to Olive, but certainly not to Elizabeth Strout. We look forward to more of her oeuvre on our OBG reading list.


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