Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout 2019

Having just seen Lucy Barton on Broadway with Laura Linney in an extraordinary performance and having read and enjoyed the original Olive Kitteridge, I was eager to read Elizabeth Strout’s latest work.  I was blown away by the book.  As in the original Olive book, this is really a series of short stories loosely linked together by the appearance of the eponymous retired math teacher who lives in Crosby, Maine occasionally in a leading role but often in a cameo.  I love the way that Strout nearly always refers to Olive as ‘big’ or ‘large’ in the same way that Homer labelled each of his major characters, e.g. wise Odysseus or wrathful Achilles.  Olive is a big woman not just in physical stature but in her heart and soul.  Outwardly somewhat cold and aloof, she demonstrates her ability to identify and help those in need, not with treacly sentimental thoughts but with listening, caring and most of all showing up.   And, Crosby, Maine is certainly filled with people who need help.  These stories are filled with the sadness of real life—-divorce, disease, abuse, drugs, murder, alienation of children from parents and husband from wife, and most of all the inevitable losses of aging and the specter of death.  Dementia and loss of capacity are prominently featured and the nursing home in Crosby (ironically named the Golden Bridge) appears in many of the stories—-a depressing and sad place to end one’s days.  Each story is a gem by itself and when read as a whole, the book is moving and memorable.  I hesitated to read it when I saw it was an Oprah Book Club selection, but Oprah picked a winner here.  Read it for the writing, for the human connection, and for the spirit shown by Olive as she moves on at age 72 from her husband’s death to her settling into an assisted living facility after a heart attack and a fall at age 86.  While fragile and frightened, she remains indomitable.

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