Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson
OLIVE, AGAIN. by Elizabeth Strout. Random House Audio. Read by Kimberly Farr. 12 1/2 hours; 10 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Random House.
Anyone who met Olive Kitteridge in Elizabeth’s Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 book of interrelated stories by that name, will remember that blunt, sometimes abrasive retired middle-school math teacher well. Olive is a large and imposing woman physically and also by sheer force of personality.
And now, Olive is back. Thank goodness.
As that first book begins, Olive seems rather unlikable, and readers might wonder, briefly, whether to bother getting to know her better. But such is Strout’s quiet genius that, as the connected stories unfold, we begin to understand and sympathize with this gruff, outspoken woman. Strout deftly blends stories told from Olive’s point of view with those in which we see her through the eyes of others. And some of the stories give us – and sometimes Olive – deeper insights into people she may have misjudged.
More than a decade later, here Olive is again, and through more stories of Olive and her neighbors in seaside Maine, we see her facing the realities of advancing age. It’s not necessary to have read the first book to appreciate this one, but it does help.
Strout’s books are not about intricate mysteries or dramatic events, although these are sometimes lurking in the background, but rather about the lives of ordinary people. As the first book unfolded, we learned, along with Olive, how difficult it is really to know other people, and how difficult it is for them to know us. Olive, like all of us, has much to learn about empathy.
This time around, Olive, gruff and outspoken as ever, continues to learn. Somewhat surprisingly, she marries again, forging a bond with a widower who moved to town some years earlier after his career as a professor at Harvard ended abruptly. Olive also tries, blunderingly, to reshape her strained relationship with her only child. We see, as the prickly Olive charges through life, that in her own way, she really does care about people and want to do the right thing. She has many regrets, high on the list the way she treated her long-suffering first husband, Henry. But she also takes pleasure in the ways she connects with and helps a variety of people.
As age takes its toll, Olive also grows in self-awareness. She is not going gently into that good night – she is definitely not happy about having to wear those “poopie pants” sometimes – but she is gaining some peace as she deals with the reality that presses in on her.
Yet this is not a melancholy book. Olive has a sense of humor, and her irrepressible personality often involves her in amusing situations. And while she doesn’t exactly mellow with age, she does learn to take more pleasure in the world around her and the life she’s lived and is living.
Kimberly Farr does a marvelous job of reading, especially as she gives unforgettable voice to Olive.