Olive Kitteridge (2009) and Olive Again (2019) by Elizabeth Strout

IMG_9242I love Olive Kitteridge–the books and the character, and I’m almost glad that I hadn’t read the first book until now because when I finished it, I could dive into the sequel on the same day, even though it came out 10 years later. Together, it was 550 pages of pandemic diversion. I enjoyed every minute. Through a series of short stories, we are transported to rural Crosby, Maine and inserted into the lives of its residents; Olive Kitteridge is the main character in many of the stories, but in some, she makes only a cameo appearance, either as a neighbor, a guest or the former middle school math teacher of so many Crosby residents. Olive is brusque, honest, and off-putting to many. When she goes into a house while canvassing for the Red Cross she says, “I’m Olive, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to sit down.” When she runs into a former resident who hasn’t been there for years she tells him “Get a lot of tourists now. Crawling all over the place this time of year. ” And she refers to a former student as  someone who was “a small, dull, asseverating mouse…like her mother.” She calls people “flub-dubs” and “hellions.”

But we soon realize that Olive is more complicated and caring than many residents realize. Once she saw a young woman unbalanced and shaky at the grocery story. After the girl disclosed she was in cancer treatment, Olive followed her home to be sure she was safe–then she continued to visit where the two of them talked about death and fear.  At a baby shower (boring and much too long for Olive), when a guest went into labor, Olive led her to her car and ended up delivering the baby in the back seat. And when she saw a man lying on the ground near a bench on her walking path, her first words were “are you dead?” followed by “have you been stabbed or shot?” and then “okay, then, try to move your leg.”  And that’s how she met Jack Kennison who became her second husband after Henry died.

Olive doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable; she dives in headfirst. It’s the trivial and superficial small talk that she can’t stand. When it comes to real stuff, she’s all in. But what strikes me most is that under her gruff shell, she’s so self-aware. She knows she lacks tact, she knows she’s getting old, she knows she’s made mistakes, she knows she’s not as close to her son as she’d like to be, and she knows she’s scared of death. This knowledge makes her vulnerable. It allows her to grow and discover who she is, embracing life and its challenges, even into her mid 80s. Olive—with her many profound insights about humans and history and politics—is a pretty cool woman. And Elizabeth Strout is a fabulous writer to have brought Olive into our lives.

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