“Olive Again” is Elizabeth Strout’s follow up to her highly acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge. Similar to the original novel, Olive Again is 13 interrelated short stories, with similar themes.
In the first story, Arrested, we meet Jack Kennison, a slightly disgraced retired Harvard professor. Jack is 74, widowed and in the beginning stages of a romantic relationship with Olive. Jack reflects all of the book’s themes. He is questioning many of his life decisions and wondering who he really is. This sense of regret and questioning of the individual’s very essence are themes throughout the stories. Jack has an adult daughter who is a lesbian and he has trouble accepting her. The tension between parent and child is also a theme of the book. Jack’s first marriage was fraught and both he and his wife had extramarital affairs. Dysfunction between husband and wife is also a theme of the book. Finally, Jack has not aged well and aging is a theme of the book.
In Cleaning, Kayley Callaghan is an 8th grader living in Crosby, Maine, the location for most of the stories. She comes from a poor single family household and makes money cleaning the house of widow Bertha Babcock. Kayley’s teacher, Mrs. Ringrose, asks Kayley to clean her house as well. While cleaning the Ringrose house, Kayley has some rather peculiar interactions with the elderly Mr. Ringrose. Kayley has an elderly friend, Miss Minnie, who lives in a depressing nursing home. She visits her periodically and her visits are also depressing. Mr. Ringrose ends up in the same nursing home.
Throughout each of the stories Olive has a presence. Some of the stories are specifically about Olive. Olive has a son Christopher who lives in New York City with his wife, her two children from prior relationships and their two children together. Christopher and Olive had not seen each other for 3 years when she invites him to come visit. Christopher’s wife is difficult, the children are unpleasant and the visit does not go well. Olive tells her son she is marrying Jack and he does not take it well.
At the beginning of the novel Olive is 73 and living independently and by the end of the book Olive is 83 years old and living in an adult community. The novel is extraordinarily depressing, focused almost exclusively on the loneliness and regrets in every stage of life, aging and the inevitable end. In one story, two brothers reconnect and they really should be happy. Although their wives do not get along they are a close family. And yet, one of the brothers sort of sums up the entire depressing point of the novel when he says: “And it came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from the gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”
The book is beautifully put together, some of the stories are incredibly creative and yet, I am just not convinced that it had to leave the reader with such a sense of hopelessness. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.