Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Staycation reading: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I usually try to match my vacation reading to the destination so being stuck at home this year was well timed. Twelve years ago, I'd devoured Olive Kitteridge by my part-time neighbor, Elizabeth Strout. Her eponymous protagonist was deeply flawed: judgemental, abrasive, and brutally honest. Olive was prejudiced toward rich and attractive urbanites and quick to blame the Jews, but she was also willing to put hate aside to help anyone in need and felt remorse for her mistakes. Olive was deliciously human and larger than life. How often is a retired middle school teacher the protagonist of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel?

Nine years ago at a small event for library volunteers, Liz Strout mentioned a few more Olive stories, a tenacious character who continued to haunt her as much as her fans. Olive, Again was finally published last fall, but I didn't want to read about home while traveling in Latin America. Due to the pandemic, we decided to rent a house on the water this summer, only ten miles from home. My son and his girlfriend joined us from Boston after Covid tests. Midcoast Maine was the perfect spot to read these stories, and made me appreciate our quaint hometown all the more. Crosby is a fictionalized blend of Brunswick and Harpswell. I know the bookshop keeper, have dined at the Dolphin, and often drive out to the point. 

Olive, Again brought me home to my staycation. Like its predecessor, the stories featuring Olive as the central character are stronger than the ones in which she only plays a cameo. They link together to form a chronological novel. Of the thirteen stories, only three were disappointing: "The Walk" was as trite as a Hallmark greeting card, and "The End of the Civil War Days" as edgy as an elderly relative cracking a sexually explicit joke. "Exiles" was a follow up to The Burgess Boys, not my favorite of her novels. However, the other ten stories were stunning: original, emotionally resonant, and perfectly crafted. "Arrested" picks up where Olive Kitteridge left off: what happened between Olive and Republican Jack? "Labor" is classic Olive with childbirth disasters. "Light" might be the best story I've ever read about supporting a loved one with terminal illness. "Friend" connects Olive to a character from an earlier novel and gives us a satisfying ending.

When I finished Olive, Again, I was so bereft that I immediately reread the last story in Olive Kitteridge, which my daughter had just finished herself. It was a joy to share Olive with my daughter, to sit side by side, reading on the deck, overlooking the mudflats. We may not be able to visit friends and extended family, but I'm grateful to have had this time close to home with my husband, our children, a dog, and dear old Olive. 

See you at low tide! 

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Barrie said...

This review makes me want to rush to the library to pick up Olive, Again. And then I'd like to rush to your summer house to sit on the deck and read. What a fun idea for an extended staycaation! How fun that you could recognize so much in the book. I love short stories. I read Olive ages again. Perhaps I should reread before moving on to Olive, Again. Thanks for reviewing!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved Olive Again nearly as much as Olive Kitteredge. And Frances McDormand playing her was perfect casting. A truly memorable character.

Lucy said...

I don't know if it was you or someone else that reviewed an earlier Olive book. It made me want to read the books so I borrowed the first one from the library. But then the pandemic hit and I returned all the library books I had whether I'd read them or not. Your review makes me want to follow up on that and read the books (although I'm likely to see if they have it in an eBook this time)! And like Barrie, reading on the deck at the summer house is also appealing. :)

Thanks for the review!

troutbirder said...

Interesting reviews and my goodness what a gorgeous view. Makes me want a portage my canoe all the way out to to the Maine coast :-)

Powell River Books said...

Sounds like a great staycation location. We hunkered down in our condo in Bellingham, Washington, for five months. It wasn't so bad. We got a routine of neighbourhood walking and park visits to read in the fresh air. We finally gave up waiting for the Canada/US border to open and for Canada to discontinue the 14-day mandatory quarantine. We came home to our float cabin home in July and life there is like a vacation every day. I'm glad we didn't wait any longer. - Margy

Jenn Jilks said...

What a great post! Such a lovely spot. Great to be with family. We've had our grandies most of the summer. It's been busy and wonderful.

Donna said...

Beautiful pictures! I like to read my books to match up with the season or location as well. Olive Kitteridge has been on my to-read list for awhile; it's helpful to know that you enjoyed it so much.

A Cuban In London said...

I love flawed characters. :-)

Beautiful pictures.

Greetings from London.

thecuecard said...

I too liked Olive Again and read it this summer. Some of the town's characters that come to interact with Olive have some dark problems. It surprised me a bit all the darkness : the abuse, drugs, death etc. But I did like Olive & her second husband Jack. here are my thoughts at: