Near the end of Olive, Again, the eponymous character concludes: “I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.” But the reader of Elizabeth Strout’s two books about Olive Kitteridge understands a lot about Olive and, if they’re like me, have come to love this tough old woman as she tries to make sense of her life as she nears its end.
Told in a series of interconnected short stories, Olive, Again is about a retired math teacher in a small town in Maine, who knows, and is known by, everyone in town. She can be stern and outspoken with her many opinions which is off-putting to many, but there are those who have seen beyond her gruff exterior and into her caring and wounded heart. In Strout’s first book, Olive Kitteridge, she quietly prevents a former student from committing suicide and in this book, we learn that Olive’s own father had taken his life causing Olive and her mother a world of pain. But Olive isn’t a victim, she just ponders things in her heart and acts according to its dictates without explaining herself to anyone.
Olive, Again is Strout’s second book about Olive and by now she is in her 70s, widowed and starting to feel the years. Rather than live quietly in her solitude, she stumbles awkwardly into a sweet relationship with Jack Kennison, another lonely man in town and they appreciate each other in ways they might not appreciated their first spouses.
This book doesn’t have a lot of action or thrills. It is a quiet book about a complicated older woman who is coming to terms with who she was and who she has become. She does find herself in some amusing situations, like helping the friend whose daughter has come home from the big city and is excited to tell her family about her new job as a dominatrix. Olive has become more understanding and patient with those, who like her only son and his family, have disappointed her over the years. Her hardships have granted her a grace and capacity for forgiveness she didn’t have as a younger woman.
Readers should read Olive Kitteridge before reading Olive, Again because it’s really one story, despite the fact that Strout wrote them eleven years apart.
Olive Kitteridge is one of my favorite literary characters and Strout has developed her so beautifully that I feel like I know her better than others in my real life. She both warms and breaks my heart. Highly recommended. Would be great for book clubs.