The Triumphant return of Olive Kitteridge

The Guardian
By Lucy Hughes Hallett

These stories about an irascible yet winning Maine widow have the amplitude and emotional subtlety of the most comprehensive novels.

live Kitteridge doesn’t much like Betty, the “nursing aide” assigned to her after her heart attack. She dislikes Betty for the hostility with which she treats the other carer, a Somali woman. She dislikes her for her Republican bumper sticker. She really, really dislikes her for having dropped the cigarette butt that caused Olive to bend over, get dizzy and fall and subsequently decide she’d better move into sheltered housing. But when one day Betty shows up crying over the death of the headteacher on whom she had a crush, back when Olive was teaching her maths in high school, Olive softens. She hands her a Kleenex and asks about her life. “‘It sucks,” says Betty. Olive wants more. “Oh it’s just a life,” says Betty. “Olive thought about this. She said: ‘Well, it’s your life. It matters.’”

The town of Crosby, Maine, in which Elizabeth Strout set her acclaimed story-sequence-cum-novel Olive Kitteridge and now sets this sequel, Olive, Again, lies on a beautiful stretch of coast; it is remote, provincial, very far from centres of power or fashion or big business. It’s just a place, as Betty’s life (two disastrous marriages, brain-damaged son, dire poverty) is “just a life”, but Strout persuades us that Crosby matters, and so do its people.

It’s not only that this small town is the setting for high drama. Even though everyone knows everyone else’s business, murder, paedophilia, suicide, armed robbery, arson and hostage-taking all take place in Crosby, and so do heartbreak and true love. More important, though, than Crosby having its share of the stuff of which flashier drama is made, is Strout’s careful attention to the humdrum, quotidian experience that gradually accretes grandeur simply by dint of going on and on through decades. Banal loss (children growing up and moving away) becomes tragic, and the pleasure of a haphazardly begun new friendship between two incontinent old women seems as redemptive as romantic love.

Strout has been revisiting these themes in her meticulous realist fiction through half a dozen books now. They are all admirably accomplished, written with sharp-witted exactitude, if sometimes almost too spare. My Name Is Lucy Barton, from 2016, much admired by some, was too arid for my taste, its self-pitying heroine too unpleasant. But Strout can go emotionally large as well. In Olive Kitteridge she created a character so vital, so funny, so exasperating and yet so winning that Olive lights up a story even when she is only glimpsed in the distance, a hand waved over her head in her signature gesture.

When we first met her, in late middle age, Olive had no brakes, no filter. She said what she thought, without pausing to wonder how hurtful, or how wrong, she might be. Her husband Henry said to her once, not so much in reproach as in weariness, “I don’t believe you’ve ever once apologised. For anything.” Everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. Everyone else is stupid. “Stupid” is one of Olive’s favourite words. Another, expressive of her defensive dismissal of anything that makes her uneasy, is “phooey”. In the earlier book, a couple are at a concert when they see Olive come in with Henry. “I don’t know how he can stand her,” says the man. “He loves her,” says the woman. “That’s how he can stand her.” Readers love her too.

Her story, the very opposite of the conventional coming-of-age narrative, is about the coming of age. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, published 11 years ago, we left her in her 70s, lying on a bed alongside a man, Jack, widowed like her, and as “old, big and sagging” as she was. “Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union – what pieces life took out of you.” As Olive, Again opens, only a month has passed. After a lot of predictable contrariness on Olive’s part, she and Jack manage to get together. And then Olive is once again alone.

These books are structured as collections of linked stories, but Strout’s publisher calls them novels. It might be more accurate to say they are the prose-narrative equivalent of a long-running TV drama series. Characters (many of them familiar from earlier books) step into the foreground to star in their own stories, then recede, to be glimpsed much later, their lives having moved on in the meantime. However you choose to classify them, though, the Olive collections have the amplitude and emotional subtlety of the most generously comprehensive novels. Within the span of these taut, laconic little tales there is room for characters to show feeling from several levels of their being – only some of which they are aware of. They develop. They change their minds. Olive herself says, tentatively, in one of the stories from this latest batch, that she thinks she may have become a bit nicer, and it’s true. She has. She grows old, as few fictional heroines do, while we witness the indignities, terrors and frustrations attendant on that process. Without labouring the point at all, for her authorial voice is always detached, never didactic, Strout shows how age has weakened what was most exasperating about Olive – her always-rightness, her irascibility – while leaving her bracing humour intact.

In one story she attends a baby shower. A young pregnant woman sits in a garlanded chair while her female friends give her the paraphernalia she is going to need when the baby is born. There is a lot of cooing and exclaiming as the presents – feeding bottles, tiny garments – are passed around. Olive gets increasingly irritable: the thing that drives her mad is the way the mother-to-be puts aside the ribbons off each pretty parcel, taping them to a paper plate. Is it the parsimony she can’t stand, or the time-wasting pernicketiness that prolongs the “stupid” ceremony, or the way the occasion forces her to contemplate her own failures as a mother? We aren’t told. Strout, beady-eyed, observes and records every fluctuation in Olive’s mood, but leaves us to interpret them.

Then one of the guests, another pregnant woman, goes into labour. Olive offers to drive her to hospital, but it is too late. “Olive stared. She was amazed. Pudendum went through her mind … What a thing!” From the commercialised silliness of a tacky modern rite to the contemplation of the body part Courbet called “the origin of the world” – Strout’s control of her narrative is so sure that she can manage the transition, deftly acknowledging its comedy, while allowing us as well to feel how moving is Olive’s inarticulate wonder. What a thing indeed!

These new stories confirm that in Olive Kitteridge, Strout has created one of those rare characters – think of Falstaff, Becky Sharp, James Bond – so vivid and humorous that they seem to take on a life independent of the story framing them. Talking to one of the other inmates in the sheltered accommodation where we leave her, Olive is struck when the other woman admits to arrogance. “Olive thought: By God, she’s honest.” Which means that they can be friends, because Olive, for all her wilful self-delusion, prizes truth above all things, and the author who created her is able to persuade us that, wrong as she often is, she is honest through and through.

Elizabeth Strout
Olive, Again