Elizabeth Strout reveals life to us in moments of banalityby Finn McRedmond / December 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
The provincial town of Crosby, Maine is home to arson, suicide, robbery and everything else befitting a US crime thriller. It’s also home to Elizabeth Strout’s heroine—a waspish and stubborn retired teacher. Eleven years on from our first encounter with Olive in Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, she has returned, widowed and in her early eighties.
Olive, Again follows the same formula. Thirteen short stories are held together by Olive’s presence as she oscillates between leading and supporting roles. Sometimes she is a plot device, popping up in a doughnut shop to hurry the narrative along with a bit of gossip. Other times she takes centre stage, delivering a baby in the back of a car, or grappling with the possibility that she failed as a mother.
In the new book, though, Strout tends to grant Olive a more consciously central role than before. It’s a refreshing development—if the first book had a failing, it was that we didn’t get to see enough of Crosby’s most compelling resident.
Each story is a vignette of small-town life. There are baby showers, which Olive finds tedious; a kind lawyer who helps a woman get her family’s affairs in order after the death of a parent; a bereaved teenager working multiple cleaning jobs; and a retired Harvard professor regretting his past as an unsympathetic father to his lesbian daughter. Despite the drama of deaths, births and the less than believable levels of crime, it is in the mundane intricacies of daily life in Crosby—buying Cheerios for a grandson, or visiting a bleak nursing home—that Olive, Again’s humanity lies.
When Olive witnesses her son’s wife berate him, she ponders that moments like these “were openings into the darkness of a relationship one saw by mistake.” And this is what Strout does so deftly, several times over in this work. She reveals life to us in moments of banality—almost as though we are witnessing them by mistake.
Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout (Viking, £14.99)