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Olive, Again

November 15, 2019

Last weekend I spent most of my time sitting and reading, after getting a shingles vaccine that gave me a big red welt on the arm and a fever for 24 hours. On Sunday, we came home in the late afternoon after seeing the movie Midway, which was pretty much what we expected–a movie that if you’re going to see it, you should see it on the big screen—and I found that a book had been delivered to our door, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again. I was delighted and sat down to read it. Finishing it before I went to bed, I was surprised at my reaction to this sequel to her first novel, Olive Kitteridge, because as Olive and I have aged, I relate to her more on a personal level than as someone who acts like my mother.

Maybe it’s because since I read the first novel my mother has died. Maybe it’s that I’m getting more like my mother as I age. Probably it’s because Olive is such a fully-realized character, and because her thoughts and feelings are so well-described. Although I’m a cheerleader for writing about the personal and a habitual writer of personal essays, I find myself thinking that my reactions to some of Olive’s thoughts are too personal to describe. So I will select a few, and describe my personal reactions briefly as a way of opening these moments up to you and maybe hearing about some of your personal reactions.

Although I don’t identify with Olive’s feelings about her first husband, I think any strong, independent woman who has been married for more than thirty years might feel some of the way she does about the “kind of hard-heartedness” she felt towards him as they got older, a feeling described as:
“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 insurmountable.”

Certainly as a mother with one child living on the east coast and the other on the west coast, I identify with Olive’s pain when she hears her friend say that “when a child moves that far away they’re really trying to get away from something.”

I see some of the way my father used to talk to my mother about her unyielding expectations when Jack, who becomes Olive’s second husband, talks to her about why she hasn’t seen her son, who lives in New York City while Olive lives in a small town on the coast of Maine. Jack asks why Olive has never met her grandson and she says “Because I haven’t been invited. I told you how badly things went when I went to New York before.” Jack says “yes, you did. Have you invited them to come see you?” And Olive says “no….I’m sure they couldn’t make the trip.” Jack persists, saying “maybe not. But I think it would be nice for you to invite them” to which Olive responds by saying “they don’t need to be invited, they can just come.” This is the part where Jack literally leans in, “his elbows on his knees,” to say “Olive, sometimes people like to be invited.” He then tells her how hard it was for him to get in touch with her and how much he wanted to, and her icy reserve melts away, which is what always happened with my mother, too. Sometimes a person doesn’t like to ask too often, to feel too needy, in such a big way that it turns into an inability to ask or even to open up a conversation at all.

It’s not only Olive the readers identify with, of course. I found it nothing short of amazing when I found myself identifying with a man who had been called by an ethnic nickname in his youth and is thinking about that as he takes a walk in the small town where he grew up. As he wonders what it means now that he accepted the nickname then without much thought, he
“approached the river, and could see in the moonlight how the river was moving quickly, he felt as though his life had been a piece of bark on that river, just going along, not thinking at all. Headed toward the waterfall.”
And later in the walk, when he has been thinking about a girl who envied his big, close-knit family saying “I bet your house isn’t quiet,” I think anyone whose kids have left home will relate to his disconcerting realization:
“And suddenly it came to Denny: His house was quiet now. It had been getting quieter for years. After the kids got married and moved away, then, gradually, his house became quiet. Marie, who had worked as an ed tech at the local school, had retired a few years ago, and she no longer had as much to say about her days. And then he had retired from the store, and he didn’t have that much to say either.”
The house getting quieter when the kids move away reminds me of Pearl Tull, in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, thinking about the light moving away from her door as her kids grew up and no longer needed nightlights.

Many of Strout’s readers are probably old enough to identify with Jack when he says, of his new car, “’well it’s the last car I will ever buy,’ which was a thought he had when he had bought the car.” I keep having those kinds of thoughts.

How can I identify with Olive when she talks about a person being “just as fat as can be” and worries so over the size of another woman’s “hind end”? Those things make me think of my paternal grandmother, the one who reproached me for my “avoirdupois,” in that they seem to indicate a sort of old-fashioned attitude about how far a person can be allowed to go until they are too different to understand. But Olive is described as a “large” woman, and she worries about her own “hind end” too, even sewing a long jacket to cover it. Maybe I identify with Olive finding out how strict physical control can break down as you get older. Olive lives to be old enough that it’s no longer possible for her to keep everything under control. Because she feels helpless and alone, she becomes more conscious of the way she used to underestimate the effect of her strong emotions on others, and she has regrets.

How can I not identify with Olive when she says (in a conversation with a person who will later exploit what Olive has said for her own purposes):
“’You go through life and you think you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see’—and Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee—‘that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible.’”
I used to think that there would eventually be some kind of “collected works” of my life–not that I thought I would get famous, exactly, but that there would be someone who would come along and put together all the things I’ve written and make some kind of sense out of them. Why I thought that anyone, even the God of my childhood who was said to watch over each sparrow, would ever be that interested is a mystery. Like the Madwoman of Chaillot, I thought that if I wore them long enough, my fake pearls would become real–I’d eventually make a difference on campus or say something important in writing, at least cumulatively. I believed that The Madwoman of Chaillot offered a unique perspective, when it turns out she was just another crazy old lady.

So Olive’s big moment, when she assures a “deplorable” that her life matters, seems a little over the top. Or else it’s just what an old woman says when she longs for someone—anyone—to talk to her, to alleviate some of the loneliness that accumulates as a person ages.

Olive, Again is good company, for a while.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2019 2:46 am

    I really enjoyed this post Jeanne. Thanks for sharing your experience. I haven’t read this yet but certainly plan to – Strout is a wonderful writer, so good at capturing the significance of small things.

    • November 15, 2019 7:38 am

      Yes, she is good at capturing the significance of small things. I like it that Olive can’t be called an “over-thinker,” a description I think we give people when we want to be dismissive, and yet the author dissects every little thing that happens to her.

  2. November 16, 2019 4:07 pm

    I adored Olive Kitteridge when I read it earlier this year, and Strout’s Lucy Barton books as well. She’s just got a way of breaking my heart with the fewest possible words, like a stealthy assassin with a knife. I haven’t gotten to this yet but I’m sure I will love it too.

    • November 20, 2019 10:22 am

      I like Strout’s writing a lot better when the stories have Olive in them than when they have the Burgess Boys or Lucy Barton.
      She is good at making a few words convey a lot.

  3. November 24, 2019 12:03 pm

    Vaccination question: Did you lose only one day to the side effects? I get my first shot tomorrow.

    • November 24, 2019 1:31 pm

      Only one day with a fever. I got the shot about 4 pm on Thursday, ran a low-grade fever all day Friday and after I went to bed, but woke up on Saturday with no more fever. I was still feeling tired on Saturday.

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