Book Review: Olive, Again
by Leanne Phillips
Elizabeth Strout’s third novel, Olive Kitteridge, was published in 2008 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. In 2015, the book was adapted into an award-winning miniseries with Frances McDormand playing the title role of Olive, a character who seems to have been written with McDormand in mind. Readers and viewers alike were delighted by the character of Olive. Now, Olive Kitteridge returns in Strout’s seventh and most recent novel, Olive, Again. Imagine my delight to find that this new book is an even more engaging, moving, and meaningful read than the original.
Strout had no trouble letting go of Olive after Olive Kitteridge. In fact, in the ten years since she wrote Olive Kitteridge, Strout had moved on to other things, including writing three more novels. She had no plans to write about Olive again. In a recent interview with Maris Kreizman for The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Strout said: “I never intended to write a sequel, but she just showed up again. She’s Olive and she has to be contended with. A few years ago I had the weekend to myself, and I went to a cafe to sit. All of a sudden I just saw Olive driving into the marina as an older woman, and I thought, ‘Uh oh. Here we go.’”
At the end of Olive Kitteridge, readers left a recently-widowed Olive lying next to Jack Kennison, a widower who befriends Olive. They initially connect through their grief, but now a romance is blossoming. Olive, Again picks up where Olive Kitteridge left off. It follows the same format as Olive Kitteridge—linked stories, each chapter essentially a short story about a different set of characters. Some of the stories are about Olive. Other stories focus on Olive’s friends and neighbors in Crosby, Maine. Even when she is not the focus of the story, Olive makes an appearance, sometimes in a significant way, sometimes peripherally. Strout has explained her reasons for giving readers brief respites from Olive: “Olive is a lot to take,” Strout says. But this is still Olive’s story, and even when she is not the focus, Strout allows us to see her from a different perspective. We learn something more about Olive through other characters’ perceptions of her and their interactions with her.
Readers will be happy to see some of the characters from Olive Kitteridge, and even characters from Strout’s other novels, make an appearance in this new set of stories. Like her fellow Mainer Stephen King, Strout has built a strong, interconnected world within her novels, a world in which a character from one novel can make a surprising, but in retrospect inevitable, appearance in a major or minor role in another novel. In many ways, the world Strout has created thus far comes full circle in Olive, Again.
Olive was forty-five at the beginning of Olive Kitteridge. Now, Olive’s life has changed, the town is changing, and in the ten years since Olive Kitteridge, the world has changed dramatically as well. In Olive, Again, in a rare and fascinating turn, readers are treated to the story of a mature female character who continues to live a vibrant life and to grow. During the course of the novel, Olive Kitteridge goes from late middle age to elderly. Aging and coming to terms with the life one has lived are among the issues with which the book concerns itself. Olive is beginning to do the work of assessing her life. She is in many ways getting to know herself, in part by seeing herself through the eyes of others. She does so without losing any of the spice that makes her “so Olive,” as Jack Kennison describes her. Olive attempts to make sense of her relationships, perhaps most significantly, her relationship with her son, Christopher, as well as her relationships with her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. All of this happens in the context of the world around her, which is in some ways evolving and in other ways regressing, and Olive tries to make sense of this, too.
The title itself can be read as a terrific play on words: We, the readers, meet Olive again, as in a sequel; Olive is Olive again in that she is beginning a new phase of her life; and Olive is becoming Olive again in the sense that she is discovering and rediscovering herself, reflecting on her life and her childhood, and reconnecting with the young woman she once was, something I think many of us experience as we age.
The Pulitzer Prize for fiction is awarded to “distinguished fiction … by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” In awarding Strout the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Olive Kitteridge, the organization noted the “cumulative emotional wallop” of the book’s thirteen short stories, “bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating.” This same description could be applied to the thirteen short stories in Olive, Again, but I cannot emphasize enough that this second book about Olive is next level. It is a continuation of the first book in the most revolutionary sense of the word. It involves the same setting and the same characters, but as in real life, these characters, and Olive in particular, are at different stages in their lives, dealing with different concerns. In Olive Kitteridge, Olive and her husband were navigating the often stormy waters of a long-term marriage. In this new novel, Olive is in uncharted waters, a stage of life that is unfamiliar to her and is disconcerting.
I read Olive, Again in e-book form, and as I saw the “minutes left” ticker on my device crawl down to an hour twenty-seven minutes … an hour … fifteen minutes … ten minutes, I noticed myself slowing down, savoring each sentence and every word, because I didn’t want the experience of reading the book to end. But all good things do.
The novel’s ending is a little of everything, both happy and sad, both satisfying and contemplative. But more than being hopeful (because, as we are reminded, life is unpredictable, and we never know what the future has in store), I think Olive, Again leaves readers hoping. Hoping for lives that are as rich and impactful as Olive’s has been. Hoping for more and for better. Hoping that HBO jumped on the film rights to this novel. Hoping that Frances McDormand is contractually available to reprise the role of Olive. This book will leave readers feeling both fully satisfied and filled with longing—that, I think, is the book’s most magnificent accomplishment.
Leanne Phillips is a writer based on California’s Central Coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at leannephillips.com.