"Olive, Again" by Elizabeth Strout

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There is something uncanny about the way Elizabeth Strout portrays her famous and familiar protagonist, Olive Kitteridge. In its blunt exposition Strout’s treatment achieves both a subtle exposition of change and a blunt assessment of Olive’s warts and attractions. In fact, the only thing blunter than a pronouncement by plain-spoken Olive is Strout’s description of her through the months and years of her dotage. Through a magisterial tour of Olive’s latter years, we learn the need for honesty, particularly honesty with oneself; the interconnectedness of life in a small town; and the absolute need to stop anticipating what’s coming up and what’s already been, but to enjoy the moment at hand. The late days of Olive Kitteridge prove in Olive, Again just as readable,
just as revelatory, just as captivating as her earlier days in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.

In this sequel we ultimately see Olive in a very telling, very surprising moment of self-knowledge, and the way Strout renders this moment in all its stunning inevitability, colored by Olive’s irascible personality, proves the author’s utter mastery. The cunning author lays out invisible groundwork for change in Olive and I just didn’t see it coming. Is it ever worth the wait!

As in the prequel, Strout illuminates the fraught, often desperately lonely lives of Crosby, Maine, in short independent stories. The characters have aged, naturally enough, as has Olive. With the exception of one eighth-grade girl who cleans houses, Crosby’s denizens come to light in the autumn of their lives. We are given by various means to understand these are difficult people, not very enlightened, nor exposed to much of what the world offers. Children who have grown have moved away and remained estranged. People who visit are mostly struck by the oddness and lack of polish of small-town Mainers.

No one is odder or less polished than Olive. Known throughout her life as one who would speak her mind openly and often rudely, Olive is still opinionated. As she has aged, what decorum she may have had has worn off, burnished by her clear sight and curmudgeonly nature. But something else happens here, something happens to Olive as she ages, something unexpected. If good fiction deals with changes and growth in characters, then this constitutes excellent fiction indeed. Somehow Strout has made growth and change in Olive - which readers would give about one chance in a million - appear inevitable. 

Fit this one into your schedule. Read both for the full treatment. They’re unforgettable. 

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